A few weeks ago, the first of several community meetings was held to address the unfortunate November shooting that took place last semester. Paul Heenan was fatally shot during a confrontation with a Madison Police Department officer who was responding to a burglary call that stemmed from Heenan mistakenly entering the wrong home.
Naturally, and rightfully, an occurrence like this raises a plethora of concerns for Madisonians. Is it safe to contact the police? Should we hesitate to call 911 unless we’re in an absolutely dire situation? While not as outrageous as the Rodney King beating or the Amadou Diallo shooting, for example, an event like this can easily arouse the paranoid fear that police are violent and not to be trusted. One of Heenan’s neighbors even went so far as to say he would never call 911 again.
MPD Chief Noble Wray recently told the Wisconsin State Journal in light of the event, there will be internal review of procedures. For example, Wray mentioned possible modifications like increasing scrutiny of officers who have had multiple complaints of alleged excessive force and drug and alcohol testing of officers involved in shootings.
Given public pressure to ensure unfortunate encounters like this do not happen again, MPD is definitely doing the right thing by listening to the community and brainstorming improvements. Yet, the department needs to do so in an educated way because, well, whatever the public cries it wants isn’t always in the public’s best interest.
Malcolm Gladwell (a name you probably know for being the author of Outliers and the book Macklemore’s song “10,000 Hours” is based on) discusses the unfortunate 1999 New York City shooting of Amadou Diallo in the book Blink. He explores the logistics of similar violent encounters between officers and citizen and puts forth some incredibly insightful explanations.
You see, human beings naturally and normally read and evaluate others’ composures when interacting. But in high stress situations, without even a few seconds for processing information, our brains suddenly become, as Gladwell describes it, temporarily autistic. For several seconds, we don’t look at other peoples’ faces or qualitative implications, but instead look at basic, purely expedient aspects. For example, instead of subconsciously processing the questions, “Is this man dangerous? What is his state of mind?” we instead process, “Where are his hands? How could he threaten me?”
While I don’t explain this anywhere near as completely or eloquently as Gladwell does, the gist of it is in high-stress situations, our minds stop being human and become purely logical. And this seems, on the surface, the kind of thing you’d want your mind to do when you’re in a potentially violent situation. But what if we initially and mistakenly judge a situation to be violent and suddenly start to evaluate whether someone is pulling a gun, instead of noticing that their facial expressions show they’re just lost and confused?
I bring up Gladwell’s insights to show MPD, in making necessary protocol changes, needs to think insightfully. They can’t just give in to public whim and say, “OK, we increased scrutiny.” MPD should not simply choose a plan because “it will, in theory, decrease unfortunate incidents” but because “studies show this actually works based on the nature of humans, however intuitive or counterintuitive it may be.”
And hey, there’s a whole sociology department nearby for MPD to call upon for this kind of guidance, too. How convenient.
Reginald Young (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in legal studies and Scandinavian studies.