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July 15, 2018

Cognitive bias and bad policing

Writing about web page https://www.npr.org/2018/07/11/627929289/video-of-man-harassing-woman-over-puerto-rican-flag-shirt-prompts-investigation

Mia Irizarry posted a video on June 14, 2018, which shows her being verbally assaulted and physically threatened by Timothy Trybus for wearing a Puerto Rico shirt. The video also shows Officer Patrick Connor standing close by and ignoring Irizarry’s requests for help.

As of July 11, Trybus had been charged with hate crimes, and Connor had resigned his position. These seem like promising first steps toward justice.

I’m drawing on this Irizarry’s video to think generally and theoretically about roles that language and cognition might play in policing.

I need to acknowledge and apologize at the outset of this writing that I am extrapolating away from Irizarry’s experience and trauma. That’s gross and unfair to her. In the real world, the most important thing that can come out of this experience is justice for Irizarry. Her video, though, reveals larger insights that may point toward ways to reduce unjust policing, and I want to pursue those insights. But ultimately, I’m pursuing something theoretical inspired by this video, and not commenting on the actual events that are shown in the video.

The specific question I want explore is—operating under the assumption that Connor was a moral, well-intentioned, professional police officer—why did Connor fail to intervene on Irizarry’s behalf?

I think issues related to language and cognition may be part of the answer to this.

On the cognition side, I suggest it’s possible that the expectations Connor brought to the situation blinded him to events that were happening immediately in front of him. Language in the video can reveal some of this cognitive blindness.

Police were called to the scene because another man (he’s wearing a black shirt in the video and appears to be Trybus’s friend) was choking a woman. I suggest that Connor understood all events in the context of solving the problem of the man in black choking the woman, and as a result failed to recognize anything that didn’t fit into that context.

This is evident in several moments:

  • At the beginning of the video, Connor has positioned himself next to the man in black in a position to control his movements.
  • At 5:30, the man in black seems to move toward someone shouting at him in the distance, and Connor shifts to block him. This shows that Connor is capable of controlling a dangerous person, when he’s motivated to do so.
  • At 9:56, Connor separates Trybus from the man in black. This move is presumably intended to segregate the Trybus from the man in black so that they can’t coordinate their stories (and not to safeguard Irizarry).
  • At 23:35, Connor tells Irizarry, "When I was called here, it was between these people."
  • At 29:59, after taking information from Irizarry about the Trybus’s attack on her, Connor returns to trying to collect information about the man in black choking a woman: “Did you see any of the stuff between these guys?”

Connor is not alone is showing this bias.

  • At 16:58, an officer interviewing Irizarry asks twice about whether it was Irizarry’s party that called the police, reflecing the need to close out the call that the police received (rather, e.g., than to help any people in need on the scene).
  • At 17:37, the officer tells Irizarry that they had been called about the man in black--"We got the call it was a male choking a female"--reflecting a continued fixation on the incident of the call.
  • At 21:43, an officer approaches Irizarry and again asks about girl who was choked by man in black.

The expectations police bring to the situation also reduce their ability to perceive Trybus as a threat.

  • At 21:43, the officer apologizes, "We know these guys."
  • At 23:44, Connor tells Irizarry that he knows Trybus and "At no time was he going to attack you."
  • Perhaps most significant of all, at 16:41, following Irizarry's account of events, the officer clarifies "But he didn't touch you? Just made you--" The officer’s question reveals a bias toward minimizing the threat posed by Trybus to Irizarry. Note the difference between her question and the more neutral, “Did he touch you?” The officer’s wording shows that she presumes Trybus only made Irizarry uncomfortable and did not actually assault her.

In short, bad policing may have happened here in part because of the expectations officers brought to the situation. Connor’s case is especially egregious, but it seems clear that there was broader potential for police cognitive bias to cause blindness to the violence being done to Irizarry.

It’s well established that people--including highly competent professionals--can fail to recognize seemingly obvious information when they are focused on complex tasks. It’s possible that Connor really did fail to see that Irizarry was being attacked just feet away from him. This could’ve happened because he was so fixated on solving one problem, that he was cognitively blind to anything that wasn’t directly part of that problem.

To be clear, I don’t mean this as a defense of Connor. But I think there are insights for policing in this observation. Bad policing probably often happens because of the way police perceive situations based on the expectations they bring to them via prior information.

In Irizarry’s video, language reveals some of these expectations. It may benefit police and society to look for ways that language might also help combat cognitive bias.

I assume, for instance, that Connor was dispatched to the park to stop the man in black from choking a woman. Of course, if a person is being attacked, that is unquestionably the most important intervention. But if Connor had also been dispatched to “help anyone else there who needs help,” would he have been less cognitively blind to the threat to Irizarry? What if “and provide any other help you can” was a standard mantra for the police department? What if officers were expected to report formally not only on how they responded to calls, but also on any other good samaritan work they did on a site. What if, once Connor radioed that the immediate crisis of the man in black chocking a woman was under control, dispatch standardly radioed back, “Does anyone else need help?”

I don’t know that the answers to these questions would really be better policing. But, if we take it for granted that Connor was a moral, well-intentioned, professional police officer, his being blinded to Trybus’s attack on Irizarry through cognitive bias the only explanation I can find for his failure to intervene. If that’s true, police departments would be well served to look for ways to reduce the effects of cognitive bias. Language may play a role in this.


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