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Why Is it So Hard for Police to Admit They've Messed Up?

Psychologists explore why it's hard for law enforcement to admit their mistakes.

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He notes that when people are asked to rank their driving skills, most will say “above average,” and that dynamic is widespread.

“Even when they have the data and they know what happened,” says Dror, “they always overestimate their success. We have to feel good about ourselves. People who suffer from depression have better memory than people who don’t, because part of our ability to survive and not to be depressed is to forget a lot of stuff.”

When detectives are certain they have the guilty party, says Tavris, whatever the suspect does further confirms their guilt. Law enforcement is generally taught, Tavris adds, techniques that confirm evidence rather than encourage re-examining it.

Why some see their errors while others doggedly do not is still something of a mystery. Although, says Tavris, psychopaths aside, people behave cruelly or just plain appallingly based on specific situations – just as they do with goodness.

Often, it’s those who come to a case later who end up working to correct conviction errors. With no time invested in or commitment to a particular outcome, it’s easier to be objective.

And the stakes are high. “The greater the harm, the greater the need to reduce the dissonance over having committed it,” says Tavris, “because that harm that you’ve done goes right straight to your gut and into your concept of yourself as a competent DA, or a competent cop, or a competent physician.”

Because human beings think in stories, says Tavris, the challenge is keeping an open mind and not locking into one belief or theory. Every step taken down a path makes it harder to step back. “It’s why people keep throwing good money after bad, or stay in an abusive or self-defeating relationship way longer than they should,” she says.

It’s critical to understanding the psychological stumbling blocks to admitting error.

Being unable to rely on those who make mistakes to correct them is reason enough, says Dror, to push to establish external review protocols and to inject impartial oversight into all levels of the system.

One improvement he’s seen: the FBI’s revised Standard Operating Procedures that help avoid bias in fingerprint examination. For example, examiners must now, they specify, “complete and document analysis of the latent fingerprint before looking at any known fingerprint.”

Dror says some crime labs are also adopting more procedures he’s advocated to counter cognitive and psychological contamination. And conviction integrity units and pre-trial reliability hearings also further these goals. The Conviction Integrity Program in the New York County’s district attorney’s office, for example, not only has a conviction integrity committee but also an outside Conviction Integrity Policy Advisory Panel. And in Texas, the non-profit Innocence Project of Texas is providing oversight for a review underway of that state’s arson convictions.

“You need to try to rectify whatever error you made,” says Santa Clara County, California, Special Assistant District Attorney David Angel. “But it needs to really shift from this kind of highly moralistic, punitive view. Maybe it’s a cause for embarrassment, but it’s not a cause for shame.”

He believes prosecutors have drawn the short straw in language, noting that defense attorneys who err are called “ineffective” and judges are “reversed” while prosecutorial error alone is labeled “misconduct,” with all the attendant negative connotations.

Angel believes that most prosecutors are willing to admit to mistakes but that “people are very hesitant to admit to something that’s called ‘misconduct,’ because it makes you feel like you did something morally wrong.”

We need to expect and accept and above all to learn from mistakes. Moving forward, Angel envisions using errors, harmless and otherwise, as study topics in in-house ethics training classes for prosecutors.