Blue Line


May 9, 2016  By Brad Fawcett

2014 words – MR


The public perception of a “black swan event”

by Brad Fawcett


Manufacturers began introducing products in the 1980s intended to mitigate the use of deadly force by police. Today, many of these same companies are turning out body worn cameras to increase police accountability and improve officer safety.

It’s doubtful if any technology or accountability system can prevent human error or improve decision making by normal people involved in extraordinary circumstances where there is no certainty of outcome.

Media framing and the rise of information potential combine to create an illusion of predictability and preventability with respect to in-custody deaths. We are programmed for pattern searching and will do so subconsciously as we search the data and video surrounding polarizing police incidents, ultimately finding what we hoped to in the matrix.

Police shootings in Canada appear as random events, due in large part to their rarity, which may approach the level of a “black swan” event – unprecedented and unexpected. However; after evaluating the surrounding context, we can usually conclude that “it was bound to happen” (<Taleb, 2007>).

Some will conclude that the lethal outcome was inevitable because of police training (or lack thereof) and culture, while others believe it was inevitable due to subject factors and behaviours. Some viewers sympathize with the police officers, pointing out that the subject’s behaviours left them with no choice but to employ lethal force. Others sympathize with the suspect, readily identifying missed opportunities or tactics that might have precluded the need for lethal force.

These events often result in extreme civil unrest, public inquiries costing millions of dollars and outcomes (usually years after the catalyzing event) that satisfy neither police nor the public they serve. Modern police work is bursting with information potential, which implies that apparently random events can be quantified, predicted and ultimately peacefully resolved by applying a well-researched online learned solution.

Many police encounters resulting in a sudden, unanticipated death are now captured on video and replayed in a perpetual present, ultimately becoming a visual obituary pieced together from a variety of digital sources (<Conrad, 2000>). The video obituary becomes augmented with images and comments from the deceased’s Facebook page, Instagram account or other digital life repository, typically showing a smiling, active individual who may bear little resemblance to the person police had to deal with.

Viewers can repeatedly watch the incident, frame-by-frame, subconsciously interpreting the subject’s behaviour in sympathy with the individual described in the obituary. Viewers find evidence to support their position, all the while forgetting that the officers involved may not have perceived in real time that which is apparent to those opining from the comfort of their home.

Obituaries tend to be beautifully written and speak to ethereal legacies, like a loving family (<Frallic, 2014>). We seldom read an obituary stating, “What to say about George? Certainly, no one could accuse him of having been a loving son, brother or father. He’d gladly have stolen the shirt off your back and he was generous to a fault with other people’s money.”

Many reading an unkind obituary feel anger towards the author for printing the truth; glossing over bad habits and behaviours appears to be expected when encapsulating the life of a deceased person, especially when he/she died during an encounter with police. Cop killer memorials are now bigger than those of the officers killed by them (<Reporter, 2015>).

A problem is believed to be a problem because the public perceives it as such, not necessarily because it exists in objective reality. Various interest groups “struggle over the definition and construction of social reality” using the media (). Journalists manage this area by framing the “problem,” thereby influencing public perception of the underlying causes and helping establish criteria for evaluating possible solutions (<Graziano, Schuck, & Martin, 2009>).

Claims made through the media gain legitimacy which, through subconscious processes, cause people to hear, see and read information that supports the perceived problem and blinding them to evidence that contradicts it (<Nickerson, 1998>). Media framing created through interest groups and selected facts combined with the inability of police to contribute facts (because the incident is under investigation), analysis of an event and processes such as confirmation bias create an illusion of predictability with respect to in-custody deaths.

Coroners’ recommendations and those arising from public inquiries typically include a demand for more police training, intended to reduce the need to use coercive physical force when dealing with difficult and/or dangerous people. The recommendation often lacks specifics, such as who should pay to develop and deliver the training or dictate the delivery modality.

The current trend appears to be focused on online or blended training (). It is uncertain if the proponents of online education for police believe that an 11 hour course delivered in such a manner will give front line officers same tools acquired through a four year psychology degree.

As Dr. Rick Parent noted, “it’s unfair and unrealistic to expect that we can train a police officer with the complexities required for drug treatment and counselling” (<Culbert, 2015>). The value of online training courses for police was addressed in a previous article (see in the January 2014 issue of ).

The noted that “there is a critical lack of scientific evidence about whether deadly force management, accountability and training practices actually have an impact on police officer performance in deadly force encounters, the strength of such impact or whether alternative approaches to managing deadly force could be more effective” (<Vila, 2012>).

Police agencies have attempted to shift their response strategy to calls associated with apparent drug and/or alcohol intoxication and mental health issues. Police now view their role in such calls as providing support to paramedics. In other words, police respond when requested to do so by emergency health providers. Paramedics may request assistance when there is a tenor of violence or a need to force entry to provide emergency medical care. This creates an interesting dynamic when physical force is required to provide medical care for someone in distress.

The shift in police focus from subject control to medical support began in the mid to late 1990s in response to evolving research and recommendations on excited delirium and associated deaths proximal to restraint (<Laur, 2004>). The British Columbia Ambulance Service (BCAS) changed response codes in 2013 as part of its resource allocation plan. In short, it re-categorized a number of call types, resulting in ambulances not being dispatched until police or fire personnel make an initial assessment which confirms the need for paramedics or upgrades the response to code “3” from code “2” (<Dow, 2014>).

The re-categorization has meant that police officers are once again placed in the position of providing the initial response to what is essentially a medical issue with paramedics, again, responding to a request from police. concluded that the change resulted in wait times doubling. BC police agencies can wait hours for an ambulance to take a subject apprehended under the provisions of the Mental Health Act (BC) to hospital. This prolonged wait is trying for police officers and can be intolerable for the subject, who may escalate their behaviour out of frustration, fear, paranoia, etc., resulting in police applying force.

The economics of policing is a significant concern at all levels of government (<Stenning, 1994; Drake & Simper, 2004>). The implementation of recommendations arising from Coroner’s inquests and public inquiries are not without cost. BC’s Independent Investigations Office (IIO) is responsible for investigating on and off-duty police incidents resulting in “serious harm.” IIO expenditures in 2013 exceeded $6.5 million (<Rosenthal, 2013>).

The budget for the BC Police Complaints Commission was approximately $3.1 million in 2014 (<Ashton, 2014>), which amounts to nearly $10 million annually. Not included are the costs associated with Coroner’s inquests examining in-custody deaths or agency professional standards sections. How does one balance the economic costs associated with investigating police use of force with the reality that the vast majority of policing is carried out in a professional and satisfactory manner and with the majority of complaints being unsubstantiated (<Parent, 2014>)?

The rise of information potential is accompanied by data storage and analysis costs. Many police departments have a crime analysis unit “which provides assistance to operational and administrative personnel in planning and deployment of resources, providing street level operational personnel with timely information, assisting in countering crime developments, forecasting of crime developments, facilitating proactive patrol activity, providing assistance to the investigative process by increasing apprehensions and clearance rates, facilitation of departmental accountability and commitment to crime reduction, ongoing exploration of opportunities to develop data and analysis systems which benefit all stakeholders in the Canadian Justice System, and for all analysis product” ().

Canadian police agencies have made significant investments in data analysis, which is entirely dependent on the quality of information provided by those at the pointy end of the spear. Front end officers are becoming glorified data entry clerks with little understanding of how or if the data they capture is making their job more efficient, safer or more productive.

The explosion of information potential in policing gives rise to the hope that somewhere therein can be found the nugget of information that will allow for a non-violent resolution to an incident. Somehow the innovative use of data and online training will someday provide an officer with a subject-specific verbal pixie dust to calm the psychotic subject.

The data can make the previously obscured de-escalation path visible to the officer and the non-violent outcome predictable. Caution should accompany what faith some may have in the predictive value of the data. Much like the medical field, where new technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has allowed doctors to see what was previously invisible, its use in some specializations, such as back health, has not proven to be the boon it was forecast to be (see in the November 2014 issue of ).

Sometimes we see too much, especially with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, and attach meaning to variables that might have little to do with what occurred on the street.


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