Why Won’t Police Learn From Their Mistakes?

Unknown-1The first week in August I posted a blog suggesting that the arrest by Madison police of a young woman currently under review by both the district attorney and department was a great opportunity for some learning.
 I had hoped that by deeply looking into this event, listening to their critics, and acting on what was learned, the Madison Police Department (Chief Koval) would change their use of force policies and tactics in situations such as this. It did not happen.
Later, I wrote about the importance of “walking your talk” when police leaders say you are committed the the quality method of “continuous improvement.”
In short, the chief’s response was essentially “What we did may look awful, but it’s lawful, and we’re not going to change;” no legal violation, no foul. While he committed to a closer review of incidents that cause public concern. question and criticism, he did not say what he was going to do to prevent such tactics from being used in the future to arrest young women. (See the arrest video and news article HERE.)
As I see it, there doesn’t appear to be much learning here. But thinking further about that, I find that it appears that I am the one to have learned something –and it’s pretty very important.
I now have learned more vividly and emotionally what aggrieved persons go through when those in power, like police, refuse to see events the way they do and then refuse to correct them.
Now the young women in question was not my daughter, nor was a life lost. This only comes from my perspective of a person who was not on the receiving end, but as an informed observer — a former police practitioner who deeply cares for and knows the good which police can do in a free society such as ours and the damage to trust that can happen when police are not responsive, don’t see things through the eyes of the community, and resist improving things because it might look like they made a mistake.
I simply cannot imagine how I would feel if I was the father whose daughter was arrested in such a matter. Also, how might I feel if I was the woman in question? Can any person honestly justify the manner in which police arrested this young woman?
All this has caused me to experience the deep feeling of powerlessness and sense of injustice that many in our society experience everyday.
It’s not that I don’t know what must be done. I’ve been there. As a young officer policing in the middle of the civil rights movement, experiencing distrust by person’s of color, reading the report of President Johnson’s commission on police, and the stunning findings of the Kerner commission stating we have become two societies in America: one black, one white; separate and unequal.
In the midst of all this, I was convinced that we police officers could turn this nation around; could significantly help assure justice, equality and fairness for everyone by what we did around the clock, every day, in every American city, town, and village; that is, treat people of color honestly, fairly, and respectfully and when force must be used to use it judiciously.
I knew from my own experience working in the inner city of Minneapolis that when I treated people respectfully, listened to what they said, and made fair decisions, I contributed to the healing that was necessary in our nation and the community in which I worked.
And that’s what I expected would happen post-Ferguson; that forward-thinking police would see public concern as an opportunity for learning, healing, and restoring lost trust. I would expect police today to see this as a chance to assure the community that the review these incidents has revealed areas which need to be corrected and improved.
Further, I expected that a 21st century police department would apologize when they did not do their best.
But most of all, when mistakes are made, I expect the chief to assure the community that this will not happen again.
This incident has shown me again that with power comes the danger of arrogance and the unwillingness to see the perspective of those who are less fortunate in our society.
The price of maintaining excellence in policing, like assuring liberty, is eternal vigilance; keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties — and then making sure those dangers and difficulties are fixed and overcome.
When police do not correct a wrong and protect their policies and practices at all costs and against the wishes of the community, they further erode trust and squander an opportunity.


  1. Often flabbergasted by your tendency, in defiance of reason, to impute noble intentions of the part of police and then decry ‘mistakes’ have been made. One example. Penny Brummer, the woman now still in prison for being an out lesbian, was put there by bigotry, stupidity and bystanding, (these qualities go together and exist in abundance). The arrest and prosecution was no “mistake” by Madison and Dane Co police and the DA’s office. Police have a function and there is nothing noble about it. Many Penny Brummers exist, we hear about a few because of the UW Innocence Project. But let’s not forget I asked you specifically to sign a petition calling for a new trial for Penny Brummer, and your response was, I can’t do anything. A signature? https://www.change.org/p/rikki-glen-new-trial-for-penny-brummer-wrongfully-convicted Anyone examining Brummer v. Wisconsin knows well the consequences of looking into this case: The exoneration of Brummer and embarrassment for many, hence Brummer, an innocent woman, remains in prison. Every cop, every prosecutor, the judge, (now in private practice), should be held accountable. What about it, a signature? Or is this too much for you? https://www.change.org/p/rikki-glen-new-trial-for-penny-brummer-wrongfully-convicted


    1. Michael, I get requests from time to time to look into an adjudicated case. I usually decline because I have neither the time nor resources to do this in a proper manner. If I am going to sign such a petition I would have to know more about the case and whether I personally believe the facts deserve a new trial. Isn’t that what judges do? And is there not a legal process for doing so? I am sorry that you felt put off. It’s not that I don’t care.


  2. I think by George you got it.

    When police officers arrive at the scene and like here in Canada see a naked man running down the street after suffering a stroke and shoot him dead in the street when he’s on his way to see his mother 70 km away.

    The 911 operator missed something there for sure.

    It’s so sad that police officers sit in the station and in their police cruisers waiting for calls like this and respond sometimes in an inappropriate way, let’s say to quickly, to go back to their mode of operation and that life, liberty, freedom of an individual means so little to some people carrying a gun & a badge.

    Keep working at it but as you know police are only part of the system, the enforcement, and they are only part of the over all problem.

    How we place ourselves in society and then look down at others is a spiritual force and its getting worst for police officers as the gap widens.

    I often ask the question; WWJD?
    What Would Jesus Do?
    Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God and it boules down to Fair and Just messure men’s or Do unto others as you would like others to do unto you in your time of need.

    Others would benifits asking; WWSD?
    What Would Scoby Do?
    He would jump all over you and love you.

    Whatever place you find yourself Believing or Not both of them have a good message and so did out Giants who stood for Equality and freedom from all and for their Kingdom stand unfortunately they were assassinated.

    But (Azazel) hear me when I say The Kingdom will be established and will prevail.


  3. It will be difficult to inculcate learning in police organizations until we overcome the accountability craze. The literature if pretty clear that one of the prerequisites for organizational learning is psychological safety. A good model to consider would be that of patient safety organizations (PSOs) authorized by the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act of 2005.

    For general information about PSOs go to this link:



    1. Thanks for this, Mark. I had heard that the healthcare industry was trying to do something like this. It is a strong comment to learn from mistakes and prevent them from happening in the future. It causes me to think about protocols and checklists. There is that great story about the doc who has a checklist system for preventing infections when implanting IV lines. He also had the data to prove it. He couldn’t sell it to his colleagues or even the CEO of the hospital. But then he called the hospital’s insurance carrier, told him/her of his idea. The next thing that happened was the hospital’s insurance carrier called the CEO of the hospital and told them to implement the procedure or they would cancel their insurance. It’s going to be a tough row to hoe when police start thinking this way because in the past its always been “deny, deny” to ward off a liability claim. I hope the time will come when fixing things is cheaper than paying huge claims!


  4. As General Burkhalter in the TV show Hogan Heroes, told Colonel Klink, “The Gestapo is never wrong, Klink. They pride themselves on being right all the time.” I think that is one of the problems with the police admitting their mistakes. Too much pride. In addition, cops act like parents in believing that like police authority, parental authority is never to be questioned and that parents like the police should never ever admit that they are wrong. Finally, if the police admit they were wrong on something, people would start questioning about their competence to solve cases and even some police officers would probably be suffering psychologically about their own ability to solve crime if they were making too many mistakes.

    There was an episode in the TV show Miami Vice where Sonny Crockett’s mentor had failed to connect some evidence in order to capture some robbers. At the end of the episode, Sonny’s mentor decide to put in his retirement papers. Sonny told his mentor that his mentor had made few mistakes compare to the many mistakes other cops had made. Well, Sonny’s mentor stated that his mistakes were one too many. Sonny’s mentor then told Sonny that he taught Sonny about being a good cop and now he was going to teach Sonny when it was time for a cop to pack it in.


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