Uvalde: a reasonable officer

In the ALERRT report on the Uvalde shooting, the term reasonable appears four times (emphasis mine):

A reasonable officer would conclude in this case, based upon the totality of the circumstances, that use of deadly force was warranted.

ALERRT report, p13

The suspect was actively firing his weapon when the officers entered the building, and a reasonable officer would assume that there were injured people in the classrooms.

ALERRT report, p16

A reasonable officer would have considered this an active situation and devised a plan to address the suspect.

ALERRT report, p17

During each of these instances, the situation had gone active, and the immediate action plan should have been triggered because it was reasonable to believe that people were being killed.

ALERRT report, p18

The implication here is that the responses of the officers who responded were unreasonable, because they did not conform to what the ALERRT staff considered to be reasonable.

Labeling the responders actions as unreasonable enables us to explain away the failures in the law enforcement response as deficiencies with the individual responders. I suspect a law enforcement officer in another city reading the ALERRT report would conclude “this type of thing would never happen to my department, because we know what we’re doing. It’s these bozos in Udvale that were the problem here.”

Once we identify the problem as being the individual responders, we don’t have to dig any deeper to understand what happened. There’s nothing to learn, because we’ve explained the failure away. It was due to incompetence!

The problem with this type of assessment on the behavior of the responders is that it makes it more difficult to learn from the incident, an effect that Cook and Woods call distancing through differencing. They describe a case study of a chemical processing company where there was a chemical fire that happened in a foreign processing plant (emphasis mine).

Interestingly, the relevant people at the plant knew all about the previous incident as soon as it had occurred through more informal communication channels. They had reviewed the incident, noted many features that were different from their plant (non-US location, slightly different model of the same machine, different safety systems to contain fires). The safety people consciously classified the incident as irrelevant to the local setting, and they did not initiate any broader review of hazards in the local plant. Overall they decided the incident “couldn’t happen here.”

But these local workers regarded the overseas fire not as evidence of a type of hazard that existed in the local workplace but rather as evidence that workers at the other plant were not as skilled, as motivated and as careful as they were, after all, they were not Americans (the other plant was in a first world country). The consequence of this view was that no broader implications of the fire overseas were extracted locally after that event.

Cook & Woods, Distancing Through Differencing

Later on, there was a chemical fire at an American facility. There were similar systemic failures in both fires, but the Americans had not learned the lessons of the systemic failures from the foreign fire. Ironically, the same pattern of distancing through differencing was observed after the second fire (emphasis mine):

Interestingly (and ominously) this distancing through differencing that occurred in response to the external, overseas fire, was repeated internally after the local fire. Workers in the same plant, working in the same area in which the fire occurred but on a different shift, attributed the fire to lower skills of the workers on the other shift. They regarded the workers to whom the accident happened as inattentive and unskilled. Not surprisingly, this meant that they saw the fire as largely irrelevant to their own work. After all, their reasoning went, the fire occurred because the workers to whom it happened were less careful than we are. Despite their beliefs, there was no evidence whatsoever that there were significant differences between workers on different shifts or in different countries (in fact, there was evidence that one of the workers involved was among the better skilled at this plant).

Cook & Woods, Distancing Through Differencing

If we want to learn as much as we can from an incident, we have to fight the urge to diagnose an incident as due to the incompetence of individuals involved. We need to assume that the incident happened even though everyone involved was acting reasonably. Only then will we be able to see the systemic problems with clarity.

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