The police are sworn to serve and to protect fundamental human rights by ensuring that the criminal justice system plays its primary role in upholding justice. Police attempt to accomplish this goal by investigating, interpreting and communicating this information. This series, while often leading police to correct conclusions, is at its essence a process easily influenced by subjective forces, which ultimately have the ability to effect the cognitive abilities of police officers and creating biases. Unfortunately, as a result, justice is not always upheld because cognitive biases in decision-making have led to the abuse of human rights and the denial of justice in the process.
This occurs, in part, because just like any other human being, police officers are susceptible to impression formations, which can result in biased thinking. Impression formations are a type of cognitive shortcut that is taken when first meeting a persona, and determines the overall view or outcome of the individuals overall impression of that person; we sometimes call this a first impression.
One of the primary problems with the effect impression formations can have is that they are often denied. The New York Times article, “Our Police Union Problem,” author Ross Douthat, writes about the role that impression formations play in creating biases, especially among public sector unions, or between police and the public. More specifically, Douthat claims that the adamancy with which police unions fight against policy changes, like the addition of personalized cameras to their uniform, is a compelling example of the force’s denial of the existence of these biases.
Douthat indicates that, rather than denying the exsistance of these biases, it is important for those in the criminal justice system, police unions, and police officers roles to be aware of the ways that cognitive biases affect their decision-making. By increasing awareness, these public servants can decrease the impact of bias, and increase their efficacy.
Cognitive biases can have serious negative implications for the police force both in terms of efficacy and justice. These biases, and the incorrect assumptions they may lead public servants to make, can lead to issues such as unsolved crimes, expensive criminal proceedings, and wrongful convictions- all of which tarnish the reputation an degrade the purpose of the criminal justice system.
During the police investigative process, cognitive biases can be manifested in a range of ways. First, cognitive bias manifests itself through confirmation bias. In criminal cases like murder, research has shown that police officers have a tendency to focus on, or only gather evidence that supports their primary thesis, or which is related to convicting their prime suspect. This kind of subjective investigation fails to look objectively into other potential suspects, or to gather all of the evidence needed to correctly solve the crime. This can be attributed to a fundamental attribution error, the most common type of error leading to cognitive bias. It is defined by a tendency to overanalyze attributions, and disregard potential details in a given situation.
Another example of cognitive bias is racial bias. Unfortunately, racial inequalities still seem to exist; people are still searched, and accused of crimes on the basis of their racial affiliations alone. In an investigative context, this can be explained by the fact that police officers place emphasis on elements that support their preconceived attribution of the individual(s) character, rather than making a more detailed investigation of the problem, or the crime itself.
Furthermore, Douthat adds that often police officers are extremely confident in their abilities, and that confidence may translate to a cognitive bias if their own sense of their abilities supersedes good investigation practices. This confidence in one’s own perception of a situation, or faith that the person you assume is guilty is the only suitable suspect, denies the investigative process the opportunity to explore other suspects, leading to failures in the criminal justice system.
Closely related to confidence in cognitive biases, is perceptions during investigative interviewing. The aim of the latter is to get an accurate account of the events that happened. However, the accuracy of the interview depends on how it is conducted. It must be conducted without bias or presumption in order to determine what is true, or knowable, in a given situation. Psychologists attribute this kind of bias to cognitions natural tendency to prove a premise, rather than focusing on disproving a premise or discovering a new premise, which can ultimately lead to extensive errors.
In contrast, the cognitive bias in public service unions can also manifest itself through the halo-effect, which is the process of attributing positive judgment towards someone or something already placed in highly regarded. Douthat explains that police unions often abuse their influential powers because of failures within. Self-serving bias theorizes that an individual takes responsibility for something, only when it is of self-serving benefit. For example, police unions may use their idolized goodness to continue failed policies. Further, they may place a “halo” on an officer who acted inappropriately, but who has been known for years of loyal service. Because the officer is already held in regard, it makes it less likely that he will be accused of criminal or negligent action.
In conclusion, it has been established that the decision making of police officers. just like other human beings, is subjective to and affected by cognitive biases. Police officers often interpret situations based on the basis of their personal filters, creating stereotypes or preconceived theories that incorrectly guide their work. These cognitive biases include attribution error, self-serving bias, halo-effect, confidence, ideation, and the human predisposition to confirm beliefs. Allowing these cognitive biases to effect the criminal justice process ultimately leads to major failures in the system, which must be eliminated in order to ensure that every alleged criminal is arrested justly, and gets a fair trial.
Douthat, R. (2015), “Our Police Union Problem.” The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/03/opinion/sunday/ross-douthat-our-police-union-problem.html?_r=1