Something About Cops: A Psych Perspective

In the Pacific Standard, “crime author” Sue Russell attempts to explain the psychological phenomenon giving rise to the inability of police to admit that they’re wrong.  She begins by recounting the story of Michael Crowe, who was charged and ultimately exonerated for the murder of his sister, noting each of the red flags along the way:

Michael was told – falsely – that his 12-year-old sister’s blood was found in his room, that his hair was discovered between her fingers and that his voice stress analyzer test showed deception. Eventually, Michael cracked. He told detectives he had no memory of the crime, but he would be willing to make something up for them.

The desperate teenager’s taped confession is now infamous, heavily interspersed with red flags like: “OK, here is the part where I’ll stop lying.” At one point, veteran detective Ralph Claytor asked him, “How many times did you stab her?” “It’s going to be a lie,” Michael responded. “Three times.” “How many?” Claytor repeated. “Three,” said Michael. “It’s a lie.”

DNA test later showed the killer to be “Richard Tuite, a drug-addicted, mentally ill transient,” (not that she’s using melodramatic stereotypes to show a propensity toward crime) who was subsequently convicted of the murder. Nonetheless, Detective Ralph Claytor, who conducted the initial interrogation, never wavered:

Blood or no blood, Claytor remained steadfast that the boys were responsible. In a deposition he gave five years after the murder as the Crowe family sued the city of Escondido over Michael’s ordeal, he said “Joshua Treadway and Michael Crowe said they did it,” said Claytor. “So I’d have to say that, since they’re the ones who told me they did it, they’re the ones who did it.”

How, in the face of proof that he was just totally wrong, could Claytor maintain his steadfast belief that his gut reaction remained correct?

According to psychologists, the intransigence on the part of the lead detective and others in the Crowe case was, as it was in the Marty Tankleff case both predictable and understandable. No matter if science can debunk old “evidence” used to win a conviction, no matter if overwhelming information is uncovered to prove an innocent was wrongfully imprisoned, some key players – detectives, prosecutors, fire marshals, et al – will cling to their long-held certainty about a suspect’s guilt.

“It’s always easier to recognize the mistakes of others,” cognitive neuroscientist Itiel Dror says of these often mystifying denials. “The problem we face,” says social psychologist Carol Tavris, “is not from bad people covering up their mistakes and not wanting to face the truth. It’s from good people who deny the evidence in order to preserve their belief that they’re good people.”

That’s a pretty think reed to hold on to.  Good people admit error in the face of countervailing evidence all the time. Good people realize that they can make mistakes and still be good people.

“It’s a mechanism that allows us to maintain a consistency between our beliefs about ourselves, which are usually positive – ‘I’m a good, kind, competent, ethical person’ – and the cognitive dissonance that is aroused when I, a good, kind, ethical person, am confronted with evidence that I did something incompetent, unethical, immoral, hurtful, or cruel.”

Cognitive dissonance, says Tavris, is unconscious mental conflict that arises when two attitudes, or an attitude and a behavior, or an attitude and new information, are incongruous with one another. We quash any contradictory or conflicting thoughts that pop up, she explains, because accepting them would mean accepting that the initial decision was wrong – something which makes humans, from detectives to doctors, uncomfortable.

But we all suffer from cognitive dissonance without the absolute refusal to concede error when we run head first into a brick wall.

Dror believes there are also reasons why criminal justice professionals’ intractability may be heightened. One factor: the more time, effort and money invested in an investigation, the more crucial it becomes to justify past choices. While that might seem equally applicable to those in business or public office, criminal justice professionals get a different kind of feedback.

“When they make errors it is not clear that they do because the actual truth is not known,” says Dror, “When a doctor amputates the wrong leg, then it is clear a mistake has happened. No way out! However, in the criminal justice system, the court gives a verdict but we never do know if it is correct or not.” Working in our adversarial justice system also plays a part, says Dror. “It makes admitting to error very hard – not only in the specific case, but the implication for future cases.”

While these factors, particularly that “truth” is rarely ever known in our world, and we’re constrained to make monumentally serious decisions on, essentially, faith, may begin to explain why cops leap to conclusions and than refuse to let go, it still fails to explain why, in those rare instances where hard evidence proves the assumptions wrong, they can’t let go.

There is a lot of virtue in trying to understand why police officers can’t admit error, whether there is a psychological impediment to conceding error and if so, how it can be addressed.  But this article seems remarkably superficial, offering pretty much the same explanations for cops as would apply to anyone, and yet most of us, confronted with our error, can at least shift gears if not apologize for our error. What it fails to explain is why law enforcement is different.

It strikes me that any attempt to reduce the problem to an overarching factor is unduly simplistic. First, it’s just not true of all cops, even though it does seem to be more prevalent for police.  Second, it assumes they all suffer from the same psychological influences, which fails to take into account that cops are people, as multifaceted as anyone else.

Yet there is an unfortunately common trait among cops that they adhere to their initial assumption to the preclusion of evidence to the contrary that, on too many occasions, results in their pursuit of evidence to convict the person they’ve decided committed a crime and their ignoring, burying, denying, evidence to the contrary. They decide who did it first, then put all their efforts into making sure that person is convicted.

This inductive approach is the opposite of what people mistakenly believe happens, where the police approach a crime with an open mind, gather all evidence, and only then conclude who the criminal is. Why isn’t this the way it happens?

Lacking the credentials to offer a psychological analysis, my experience leads me to believe that it’s because we work in a system where little is ever real, proven, known, but where decisions need to be made nonetheless. We grasp onto nonsensical beliefs, like cops having a “sixth sense” that enables to know who is guilty out of thin air.  Rather than be paralyzed by facts and evidence, the buy into their own myth, hold onto it as an article of faith, close their eyes tight and steam ahead full speed without ever allowing doubt to enter their consciousness.

Perhaps there is a good psychological explanation for what happens, but the fact that it happens is demonstrated by the phenomenon recurring. It would be helpful to know why law enforcement behaves this way so that, maybe, we can break through this intractability, both to free the innocent as well as identify the truly guilty rather than the assumed guilty. 

Unfortunately, this article offers little to help, suggesting that cops are pretty much like the rest of us, except different. That doesn’t get us any closer to understanding the psychological issues that afflict police. Or maybe it’s just a leap of faith that will never be changed by evidence, fact or reason, and beyond the scope of psychology to explain.

6 comments on “Something About Cops: A Psych Perspective

  1. Henry Berry

    As someone who has been targeted as an enemy of the state for more than a decade by CT and Federal state-security agencies, I have come to summarize what Greenfield discusses in this post as state-security/law-enforcement people regularly straining to justify their stupidity. Greenfield puts it in terms of seeing themselves as ethical, good, etc. But let’s face it, lots of them are just stupid–and they irrationally cling to their mistakes out of embarrassment to admit their stupidity. In my case, for example, the state-security people have spent well over $1,000,000 in keeping me under surveillance, harassing me, defaming and demonizing me, witness intimidation, and attempts at entrapment and framing me for drug and/or sex crimes over the past decade. I realize that the longer this goes on, the more guilty I am in their eyes; i. e., the more money they spend and the stupider they look in trying to expose and nab me as a nefarious criminal/terrorist, the guiltier I become. They continue their so-called investigation of me with related surveillance, etc., by persuading themselves that I must be the smartest criminal in the Western world (rather than someone just modestly going about my business in the book trade); and they are eventually going to outsmart me, thus proving how smart they are. When in fact the basis of the whole situation is not that I am so smart, but they are so stupid. Only stupid people would believe I am a criminal/terrorist. That is why they have to demonize and defame me–thus admitting their stupidity, although they are probably too stupid to realize this.

  2. Bruce Coulson

    Part of the tendency stems from the general attitude of all bureaucracies. No bureaucracy cares to admit that they made a mistake. They resist it, and it takes a LOT of pressure sometimes to compel them to make an adjustment. Even then, the bureaucracy takes the attitude that they were still right; they’re just being forced into making a correction that is unnecessary.

    Upper-echelon police are a part of a bureaucracy. They are invested in it. Indeed, part of their identity of who they are often comes from their station within that bureaucracy. So, by admitting a mistake, they are not only admitting a weakness in themselves, they are lowering the esteem of their organization. They’re ‘letting their side down’ in the war against Crime.

    Consider that the position of detective, in most departments, is highly politicized. You don’t get to BE a detective unless you have the right attitude (along with some other qualifications that aren’t listed in Civil Service). So, there’s a filtering process that tends to select detectives that share this attitude.

  3. JKB

    Bureaucracy is part of the answer but for police, I think you need to add in the impact of their defensive training. The training is all to build acting on muscle memory. See, shoot. Doubt, considering other possibilities gets you killed. Some police seem to take this imminent threat attitude into investigations.

  4. hmm

    This is a really interesting question.

    The bureaucracy idea contributes something I think.

    But I keep coming back to a few other ideas: 1. The factory analogy, 2. the training/intelligence issue, and the 3. indulging-the-good-boy theory.

    1. The sausage factory: This is not their only case. Their desks are spilling over with uncleared cases. Pressure is to move forward and clear cases. If we did what they want us to do, we would produce a few gourmet sausages every year. This is not a gourmet sausage factory. This is a high-volume production facility. Consider too: How many times a day does a police officer swear his signature to a summons or arrest report? swear that often and it is not worth that much. So, they reason, are you complaining? You expect us to admit a mistake? Are you kidding? What did you expect? You want that level of production that is what you get. Want more? Put up the dough for it. Otherwise, bug off – we put our lives on the line everyday for ungrateful people.

    Of course cops are all individuals, but I think that might penetrate some of it.

    2. Training/intelligence issue: It is policy in some place not to hire police candidates who are super smart. In any case, there is not college training required. Quality standards expected of a high school student aren’t as high as college, where new tighter concepts tend to take hold. Police training is remedial with so many candidates of average or lower intelligence and then the pressures of production take hold on the beat. A canned explanation saves extra work. Us v Them ingrained in American police culture doesn’t help that either. Training in investigation gives way to training in writing reports that stick as to minimum stuff like probable cause.

    That kid’s false confession met probable cause. They are never ever going to say it didn’t no matter how hard it was undermined because that is what we hire them to do, pay them to do and expect them to do. When we demand better, we will pay for it and pass laws requiring it.

    3. I’m a good boy/girl theory/ teacher’s pet:
    In cop culture there is often the feeling that the powers that be, the courts, prosecutors, have their backs — they understand that cops are putting their lives on the line and favor them.

    They are so used to being indulged and so used to ‘earning’ extra credibility merely by donning a uniform, that they will lie even when they don’t have to and when there is little at stake. I know a cop who lied in interrogatories about minor things like where he worked for no reason except that he would rather the plaintiff not know. He assumes the court understands and sympathizes with that and that the obligation to be truthful is not absolute.

    That stems from the deference he has enjoyed for so many years as a cop.

    It’s not that the truth isn’t the truth to the deniers, their denials are the truth in a way. They are saying something about their authority, position, role and obligations i

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