Learning From Our Mistakes

UnknownEveryone makes mistakes. People do and so do their organization’s. Mistakes or errors cannot be totally avoided. And attempts to cover them up, de-minimize them, or argue they are not mistakes always seems to compound the problem.
But there is another way to approach a mistake. They can be great learning opportunities; in fact, teaching moments!
Yes, it would be nice not to have incidents in which the public questions the propriety of a police response or decision, but given the varieties of behavior police encounter, not all will be without error or be considered acceptable in the public’s view.
One city which I have been following is a typical American city with a good police department and much civic pride. But the city recently experienced three police incidents which claimed citizen lives.
Each could have been an opportunity for the police department to publicly review their tactics, training and leadership, and reassure the community of their commitment to lifesaving.
From such a discussion, learning could have occurred — like seeing the need to restate the department’s commitment the protection of life, making a change in their training protocol, or, at least, presenting themselves to the community as concerned, caring and compassionate. It did not happen.
Now a fourth incident is currently in the public’s eye, the violent arrest of a teenage girl of color. While attempting to restrain her, police used multiple knee strikes to her torso, slammed her into the pavement, and applied a Taser repeatedly to her midsection.
Many who watched the shocking video (taken, of course, by a citizen bystander) thought the police tactics were excessive, out of line, and disproportionate to the situation — an upset teenager in shopping center who thought her cell phone had been stolen. The caller to police mentioned a knife, though when approached by police she was upset, not armed, and a good candidate to use conflict management and de-escalation techniques.
This incident is now being reviewed by the district attorney for law violations and the police department for policy or training violations. Short of a press conference right after the incident went viral, there has been little to no public discussion.
Nevertheless, this incident could have been another opportunity for police leaders to practice their commitment to community-oriented policing.
I say this because a true community-oriented policing involves deeply listening to the community; especially if the community is telling the police their tactics are unacceptable and should no longer be used.
A true community-oriented police department is able to listen to angry voices, not respond in kind, and review its practices and make adjustments. Often it is to balance what may be legally permissible with what is desirable and acceptable to the community..
If the district attorney finds that the officers did not violate the law and the police chief finds the officers’ conduct correct in keeping with their training and policy, I sense there is going to be a major problem.
For not to adjust the department’s training, policy, and direction after reviewing the use of force in arresting this young girl is to invite legitimate cries of misfeasance and further erosion of trust and support of the police in this community.
Over the years, the police in this city have an established legacy of excellence, fairness, responsiveness, and a strong orientation and closeness to the community. But community goodwill can be quickly eroded in the absence of corrective behavior.
Many years ago the department put “continuous improvement” into its mission statement. It means mistakes and errors are opportunities for improvement not occasions for organizational self defense.
Now back to the most recent incident. Simply said, none of us would want our daughters, sisters, wives or mothers treated in such a manner as this young girl was. Therefore, a police agency in the 21st century must find more appropriate ways to respond to misbehaving teenagers – teachers do, social workers do, group home supervisors do — and so should police.
Over the past few years there has been a conversation that goes like this: while a law may permit certain behaviors by police, it is not unrealistic to expect them  to “raise the bar” in “legal” situations that are unacceptable to the community. This is precisely the argument surrounding police use of force in our country today.
For instance, this department has a long history of doing this. When state law permitted police to use deadly force to apprehend any fleeing felon the police department leadership said no. Deadly force could only be used to apprehend those who pose an immediate threat to police or others. This meant police officers were no longer permitted to use deadly force to apprehend fleeing car thieves who often turned out to be teenagers.
When state law permitted police to pursue and apprehend suspects who evaded capture by fleeing in an automobile, police leadership again said no. The department will pursue only under certain conditions and when danger to the community rises, field supervisors can order an officer to stop the pursuit, to terminate the chase. This meant the probability that a driver fleeing from police would crash into an innocent bystander was greatly reduced. These administrative rules also prohibited police in this city from shooting at a moving vehicle for the very same reasons.
The law permits people to be arrested and jailed for a great number of offenses many of us would consider to be minor. While the law permitted a person to be physically arrested in these cases, police leaders instructed their officers to issue citations in lieu of arrest (which, in effect, curtailed the arrest powers granted to police by the state).
It is not usual, improper, nor illegal, for governmental agencies such as the police, to engage in administrative rule-making (policy development) to regulate and raise the behavior of its officials above that which law may permit.
This is how and why a democracy works.  Powerful governmental entities like the police must be able to restrain their authority in order keep in step with the will of the people.
And that means deep and generous listening and continuously improving.


  1. You just cannot resist couching your critique in ‘oops, someone made a mistake’ nonsense.
    I watched the video of the East Towne assault.
    This was no mistake.
    Framing these SOP attack as though it were an outlier is disingenuous.
    Attacking, harassing and terrorizing targets of opportunity is SOP for police.


  2. I question those reports of 911 calls especially since it involved the mentally challenged person holding a toy train & and this upset young girl of color. It seems a lot of these issues are happening to people as you well said people of color or of some difference from the normal we pride ourselves to be.

    If I were to get a dispatch from a 911 call and may I add the dispatcher should be comparrison ask questions about the so called weapon but let’s say the report says this person has a knife in his hand and not a toy train.

    A well trained person would show up and guess what happens. He’s in high alert looking for some sort of confer mating before he starts firing. Well in some of these cases they seem to be blind and excuse my French they need some glasses because a toy train looks nothing like a knife.

    Which causes me to question those 911 reports we don’t seem to be hearing to back those reports that came in…. wonder why?

    What I think is happening is there’s a war going on between the people of color and the innocent are dying because of it… call it whatever you want it’s not going to stop with the lies.


  3. Law enforcement organizations, like most organizations, are learning disabled. Learning organizations learn from their successes as well as failures. Police agencies tend to investigate rather than analyze, due to our current national craze for accountability. We can accomplish more through learning than we can quests for accountability.

    I recommend you read a recent analysis of data about violence and police use of force.

    Click to access Dispelling_the_Myths_July18.pdf

    The most compelling data from the Uniform Crime Report (with about 66% of agencies reporting) indicate that in there were 9,074 deadly assaults with firearms, cutting instruments, and other deadly instruments on law enforcement officers in 2014. The best estimate of deaths from police use of force for 2014 (average of data from Centers for Disease Control) would be around 429. If we assume that those agencies not reporting are relatively small agencies in which there were no deadly assaults on officers, there were 8,645 incidents in which officers could have likely been justified in using deadly force, but did not kill their assailants.

    What happened in those 8,645 incidents? Were those outcomes due to luck, lack of bad luck, or skill? We simply don’t know. One of the major flaws in a quest for accountability is that you generally only draw conclusions about what not to do. Who wants to hop up on the operating table with a surgical team that only knows what not to do? I suppose if you want to contribute your body to science that would be a good way to do so. How can you hold someone accountable when you can’t tell them how do perform correctly?

    If you want to save lives, learn from everything you can.


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