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