Understanding & Learning from Mistakes in Law Enforcement: A Proactive Approach

by | December 1, 2023

It’s easy to look back on an incident and pass judgment using hindsight—and it’s certainly easier to blame the officer (or officers) involved and just move on. But doing so deprives the agency and the profession as a whole of the chance to truly learn from the incident and take proactive steps to address the underlying cause. After a tragedy, we have to ask “why”: Why did the tragedy occur? Why did the officer make the decisions that led to the tragedy? As we keep asking why, we will eventually determine the root cause of the tragedy. But that’s only the first step. Once we know and understand the root cause, we must work to address the problem to avoid future tragedy.

In a recent webinar, “Why Do Bad Things Keep Happening? Insight vs. Hindsight,” Chief (Ret.) Mike Ranalli and Laura Scarry discuss the root of the mistakes we frequently see in law enforcement and what agencies, leaders and personnel can do to change the tide.

How We Understand Law Enforcement Mistakes

“The majority of the time we’re getting things right,” Scarry says. But what happens when we get something wrong? The best thing law enforcement professionals can do when they make a mistake—or when they see the mistake of a fellow officer, at their own agency or at another—is to ask why.

“Rather than blaming someone and moving on, determine root cause,” Ranalli explains. People in law enforcement are human—we all make mistakes. What’s important is to look at all the mistakes we make, not just the ones that result in tragedy. We can’t operate under the belief that a lack of negative consequences means we’re doing everything right. When mistakes happen, regardless of the end result, we must use all the tools at our disposal to address them. That means looking at the root of our mistakes in law enforcement, and it always comes back to the five pillars: policy, people, training, supervision and discipline.

Many law enforcement leaders may think to themselves, “My people know my values and the values of our agency.” But how do our people know? How are we communicating our values to our people? Ranalli cites the example of officer safety, a stated value of nearly every law enforcement agency. Yet too often, officer safety is put aside when officers engage in tactics that decrease their safety but are nevertheless tolerated – and in some cases, these are tactics officers are trained to employ.

Leaders must continuously emphasize and remind their people of the importance of following the law to the best of their ability. This message should be reinforced in each of the five pillars: through hiring practices, policies and procedures, training, and the roles of supervisors in setting standards and executing disciplinary action.

“Rather than blaming someone and moving on, determine root cause.”

What Did the Officer “See”?

Hindsight is a major part of the problem,” Ranalli explains. “We use blame and hindsight to vilify officers and then we never get to the actual ‘why’ of the incident. Why did this happen?” Instead of employing blame, Ranalli further explains the importance of dissecting what the officer was seeing in the moment, what the officer was thinking and what was guiding the officer’s decisions. Elements that play a role in what the officer “sees” include—and extend beyond—what we noted in the five pillars. Key areas to be aware of include:

  • Culture/values (of the agency and the officer)
  • Expectations set by the agency or by supervisors
  • Artifacts in training, policy and/or operations (“We’ve always done it that way.”)
  • Biases for or against people, areas or circumstances
  • Priming

Scarry zeroes in on priming: “Often, officers are responding to calls with limited information and without time to gather additional information,” she explains. Quoting from a 2020 study, Scarry says, “Priming officers with incorrect dispatched information about what a subject is holding significantly increased the likelihood for shooting error, while priming officers with the correct information significantly decreased the likelihood of error.” Priming is not limited to dispatchers but includes every avenue through which officers gather information before arriving on-scene, including over the radio.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean an officer was given bad information. Before it can be communicated, information must be classified. And that classification is based on what dispatchers or officers know at the time. In rapidly evolving situations, information can change, and the initial understanding of a situation may prove inaccurate. As the responding officer, take the time to consider: What do you actually know? Ask questions of the dispatcher or reporting officer and clarify the information as much as possible.

Simple Acts Can Lead to Big Benefits

Taking simple steps to align policies with the law, to improve the effectiveness of training and to ensure proper supervision can make a big difference in operations and officer decision making. If we do these things well, we will be able to better catch mistakes before they lead to tragedy—which is better for our communities, our officers and our agencies. “If we choose not to engage in continuous self-improvement, then someone is going to do it for us without allowing us to have a seat at the table,” Scarry states. Self-improvement is not a bad thing; it’s necessary for us to ensure we are serving our communities and fulfilling our mission to the best of our ability.

Watch the on-demand webinar, “Why Do Bad Things Keep Happening? Insight vs. Hindsight,” to learn more.

Sources:

  1. Taylor, P. L. (2020). Dispatch Priming and the Police Decision to Use Deadly Force. Police Quarterly, 23(3), 311-332. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098611119896653

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