Monday, October 8, 2012

Inadvertent Police Shootings of Unarmed Citizens: Normal Error, At-risk Behavior, or Reckless Behavior?

Officers belonging to the New York Police Department (NYPD) over the last two decades have been involved in inadvertent shootings of unarmed citizens (e.g., Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell), which have resulted in a tragic loss of innocent lives.  The most recent incident occurred on Oct. 4, which resulted in the fatal shooting of Noel Polanco, 22, who was shot by a 14-year veteran detective, Hassan Hamdy, 39, assigned to the elite Emergency Service Unit. Needless to say, these incidents not only besmirch the reputation of a police department whose function in a Republic is to protect and serve its citizens but also cause irreparable harm to police-community relations. 

Mr. Polanco's Honda was pulled over on the Grand Central Parkway because, the police said, it had cut off their vehicles.
The questions raised by these tragic incidents are many. But one crucial question that is of great interest to the human factors/cognitive scientist is what may have caused the police officer NOT to realize that the citizen was unarmed, meant no harm -- yet pursued a course of action (use of deadly force) that was incompatible with the situation that was encountered (unarmed civilian). Put in human factors jargon (taxonomy [Marx, 2008]), did the police officer commit a:
Normal Error: Inadvertent action (slip, lapse, mistake)?
At Risk Behavior: A choice: risk not recognized or believed justified?
Reckless Behavior: Conscious disregard of unreasonable risk?

The job of a police officer is certainly not easy. He must accomplish speedy and successful "sensemaking" (making sense of one's experience and giving it meaning) and situated-social cognition (reading and interpreting the intent of a civilian who may appear to be posing a threat) in a high stakes situation, where incorrect sensemaking may end-up costing his own life. 

So the question is, how should the citizens of a republic recruit a police officer with the right type of psychological profile who will not indulge in Reckless Behavior, legally arm him; then ensure that he his trained so that he doesn't become a victim to his own poor choices of At Risk Behavior or commit Normal Error? This is also dictated by the relationship between a police officer and citizen through what is referred to as the "Power Distance": 
Power Distance is one among five dimensions of a culture identified by the sociologist Geert Hofstede who defined it as: 
"the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally."
The power distance may vary between the police and citizenry. It may be very large in a police state, moderate in a country like the United States (this may vary from city to city), and relatively low in European democracies such as Great Britain  The abuse and misuse of power distance are serious problems where they can cause loss of life in risky socio-technical systems such as police departments, military, aviation or hospitals as they set expectations on how personnel (or the bureaucracy_ should perform within (in-group) and interact without (out-group). Problems caused by power distance are typically symptoms of a decrepit organizational culture that is marked by poor management, training and operational protocols.

Having introduced the above concepts, let us now consider Mr. Polanco's shooting through them. Early reports on this shooting indicate that "Mr. Polanco was driving erratically, switching lanes while speeding, and twice cutting off two police trucks carrying nine officers of the Emergency Service Unit..." The narrative given by a passenger in Mr. Polanco's car indicates that the officers committed an act of road rage, allegedly losing their temper when their authority (power distance) was challenged on the road (Mr. Polanco cutting off the two police trucks, twice). This may have been exacerbated when the police officers approached Mr. Polanco's Honda, which was forced to a stop, and ordered those inside the car to show their hands -- and Mr. Polanco didn't comply. According to the Times, in an interview,  a passenger, Diane Deferrari, in the Honda said that Mr. Polanco "...had no time to comply and that, in that instant Detective Hamdy fired the shot."

It is too early to conclude as to what may caused Detective Hamdy to fire that fatal shot. Was it Reckless Behavior? Or a case of Normal Error or At-Risk Behavior brought about by poor sensemaking? Some may be inclined to lean towards Reckless Behavior, even though this was the very first shot that Detective Hamdy fired in his 14-year career as a police officers. But they may point to the two lawsuits that were brought against him for allegedly not following proper procedures when apprehending suspects. On the other hand, the portrait of Detective Hamdy is somewhat complex, because earlier this year, he was also accorded the status of a hero as he helped rescue five people in a burning apartment building.

One may also wonder whether Detective Hamdy's prior professional background in the military, which has a very different conception of the use of fatal force and power distance as opposed to policing, may have influenced his decision making in the situation discussed above. (Detective Hamdy served four years in the Marine Corps, rising to the level of sergeant in an artillery division, and earned medals for good behavior.) Furthermore, did Detective Hamdy's current assignment  in the Tactical Apprehension Unit (TAU) of the NYPD, a very stressful and risky operational setting -- that may employ somewhat of a larger Power Distance than typical policing on the street -- play a role in this shooting? What might be referred to as a negative transfer of skills, experience and training, which [TAU] is geared towards taking on criminals and gangs to a situation that was of a different nature (unsafe vehicular operation on the road of a driver) get the better of him?

Next, one may also attribute to the inappropriate decision making of Detective Hamdy to issues raised by High Velocity Human Factors (HVHF). Did the autonomic arousal -- what is termed as "predatory cardiovascular reactions" (much like the arousal a predator experiences when chasing a prey) -- that was triggered-off by the adrenalin released in the car chase have a role? Perhaps, this autonomic arousal didn't make him pause (sensemaking) before opening fire? For instance, giving consideration to the possibility that Mr. Polanco may not have heard the officers' orders to raise his hands. Or was there a real threat that was perceived by Detective Hamdy when Mr. Polanco didn't raise his hands from the steering wheel? (An earlier report indicates that a Power Drill was found on the passenger seat of the vehicle.) Did danger-induced emotional arousal distort the facts [perceptual mechanisms such as the "snake in the grass effect"], much like the officers who shot Amadou Diallo, who mistook his black wallet for a gun? We may not know until the inquiry is complete.

In the meantime, there is one thing, that is, training, which certainly needs to be revisited in the best interests of all concerned. Professionals in a variety of professions are trained under the rubric referred to as KSAs (Knowledge-Skills-Attitudes) to do the job. They can be briefly described as follows in the context of doing a job, whether it be flying a plane or being a police officer:

Knowledge: Need to know
Skills: Need to do
Attitudes: Need to feel

Training of professionals is typically very good on the first two (K & S) items. But it is always a challenge with the last one, "Attitudes." In policing, particularly in a time compressed, high stakes situations an officer may not have enough time for analysis of the situation, rational thought and decision making. He literally has to go with somatic situation awareness (see publications), or what is referred to as "gut feeling" in the vernacular. How does one "train" gut feeling to make those right decisions when danger is imminent and the moments are fleeting? This issue has been studied under the auspices of HVHF by bringing to bear both evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. The process of interpreting this body of science and translating it into pedagogical curriculum to inculcate the ability in an officer through feeling (Attitude: need to feel) and interpreting the intent (situated-social cognition) of a civilian has just begun. This work needs to be accelerated so that officers, including soldiers (particularly in COunter INsurgency operations; COIN), do not become victims of their own circumstances; wherein they end-up in the fatal shooting of innocent civilians like Mr. Polanco, or killing one of their own, committing fratricide.

Moin Rahman
Founder/Principal Scientist
HVHF Sciences, LLC

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