The Law of Unintended Consequences

| January 29, 2016

The Law of Unintended Consequences

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Because law enforcement supervisors often have to fill the multiple roles of investigator, prosecutor, defender/advocate, jury, and judge, all in one package, there is an increased chance that any decision made by a single person may be skewed at best, and in a worst case scenario, purposefully biased and vindictive against an employee. As stated earlier in the Perspectives section, these disparate and often adversarial roles are divided among many people so that bias is minimized and an objective “truth” is sought. The underlying concept is that including many people in the judgment process will likely have a moderating effect on the outcome. Having a single individual making the judgment decisions will likely lack the moderating effect of the group, and can result in extreme or unfair decisions.

Police supervisors need to be cognizant that their decisions may not be inhibited by moderation as it would be in a group setting. As such, supervisors should take steps to moderate their own thoughts and actions. One moderating factor is the concept of “above all, do no harm” as commonly attributed to the Hippocratic Oath in the field of medicine. This is a concept that applies to all disciplines and should be taken into account by all decision makers.

Sometimes we fix one problem and we create another one. At times, our lack of understanding of the root causes of a problem in the first place, leads us to come up with the wrong solutions. This is why the initial analysis of the key issues and their likely causes is so important. If we misdiagnose the problem and the causes of the problem, there is the likelihood that we may ‘solve’ the wrong problem. This is a double error because the original problem remains unsolved, and the ‘solution’ may be creating additional unintended problems.

A common example of this is found in law enforcement when the wrong suspect is arrested and charged with a crime that he/she did not commit. It is bad enough that an innocent person is taken to jail. But it is also bad that the real offender has escaped prosecution. That is an example of a double error. In this discussion question, provide a different example of a decision that you have observed in your career or you have heard about that fits this pattern. Briefly provide a background to provide context to the reader, and then analyze the decision making process and its ramifications.

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