Officer-Involved Shootings: Who’s Really to Blame?

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Protest march in Baltimore, 2014. Photo by Bruce Emmerling via Flickr

Against the tense backdrop of police shootings of unarmed civilians, a research paper has proposed an alternative approach to evaluating encounters between police and civilians that turn deadly.

The University of Pennsylvania Law School paper, published last month in the Villanova Law Review, argues that Root Cause Analysis (RCA) can be used as a complement to existing procedures for accountability and punishment in officer-involved shootings.

In contrast to traditional analytical approaches, the RCA approach avoids efforts to single out individuals for blame, and focuses instead on systemic problems that contribute to often tragic events in the justice system, such as wrongful convictions or police use-of-force incidents that result in death.

“…It is not clear that our systems for evaluating a past OIS (Officer-Involved Shooting) through administrative reviews, civilian oversight, or civil and criminal litigation are effective in understanding how to learn from past OIS or how to prevent the next OIS from occurring,” the study said.

The paper, entitled “Root Cause Analysis: A Tool to Promote Officer Safety and Reduce Officer-Involved Shootings Over Time,” was written by John Hollway, director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School; Calvin Lee of the University of Pennsylvania; and Sean Smoot of the Police Protective & Benevolent Association of Illinois.

The authors concluded that RCAs can help senior police managers develop methods that can guide officers’ responses to violent confrontations. They argued current review mechanisms used by law enforcement agencies generally fail to provide guidelines that can prevent violent escalations of encounters between police and civilians.

See also: Looking Beyond the White Bears in Criminal Justice 

“Existing review mechanisms are based on retrospective accountability and evaluate whether the officer, the individual who was shot, or some third party bears blame,” the authors wrote.

They added:

Such measures which focus on individual culpability may deter police from shootings caused by deliberate or intentional misconduct. They have failed to reduce the occurrence of accidental or unintentional acts or encounters that escalate into an OIS. The reality is that many, and perhaps most, OIS occur despite the fact that no one–neither the officer, nor the civilian, nor the general public–wants them to occur.

RCA analyses rest on the presumption that people are acting rationally, without an intention to do harm, and that they simply wish to effectively perform their tasks within a given system. Although this is a core belief of “non-blaming” accountability reviews, RCAs can still differentiate between well-intentioned errors made in good faith and intentional misconduct made by bad actors, the study said.

The authors noted that the RCA approach has been used successfully for decades in aviation, healthcare, manufacturing, nuclear power, and other fields.

“It is through the application of RCA and other associated initiatives over more than forty years that crashes in aviation have declined to very near zero,” they wrote.

In another example cited by the authors, healthcare administrators’ pursuit of what they call “Just Culture,” which incorporates RCA reviews of medical mishaps in hospitals, has sharply reduced the frequency of such incidents.

“The Just Culture is one that recognizes competent professionals make mistakes and acknowledges that even competent professionals develop unhealthy norms (shortcuts, “routine rule violations”), but has zero tolerance for reckless behavior,” wrote the study authors.

Editors’ Note: The ‘non-blaming’ approach is a critical component of the Sentinel Events pilot initiative launched by the Department of Justice in 2011 to help communities analyze incidents like wrongful convictions and other justice missteps with the aim of identifying (and correcting) the often-ignored mistakes in procedure that led to them. Penn Law’s Quattrone Center, headed by John Hollway, one of the authors of the study, has received federal funding to expand the pilot initiative to 25 communities.

A copy of the paper can be downloaded here.

This summary was prepared by TCR News Intern John Ramsey. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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