The Gorilla in the Room

Another look at where we stand on ‘untruths’ in law enforcement

By Paul Taylor  |   Jul 22, 2019

Recently, Calibre Press published a thought-provoking article by Chief David Magnusson titled, Lies: Where do you stand? What place do untruths have in our profession? I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t. It will provide context for this article.

If you would rather keep reading, here are the highlights.

  • The primary questions the article poses are, What should the top administrator do with the officer who does not tell the truth? and Should lying be a ‘death sentence’ in law enforcement?
  • Chief Magnusson goes on to say, “So here is the gist of my concern: Let’s put aside false testimony in court. I think most of us would agree that if you go down that road, you need to go. You are tarnishing the badge. That seems pretty clear cut. But what do you do about the writing of a false report or making a false statement?”
  • The final takeaway was, “Fact is, our collective response to liars within the ranks is more important than ‘their’ dishonest actions. Whatever it is that we accept by not ostracizing it, will become the norm, along with the reputation it proffers. My Take? As chief of police, my mantra: YOU LIE, GOODBYE! I just don’t have time for you.”

This seems to be a widely shared sentiment throughout the profession, particularly among police administrators. In fact, Chief Magnusson’s article took me back to my first day in the academy when the academy director said something that would be repeated throughout my career, “You can make mistakes in policing, but if you lie, your career will be over. There is no place for liars in law enforcement.”

I fundamentally agree with what Chief Magnusson wrote. Knowingly lying or intentionally committing perjury is without question wrong—even criminal—and should not be tolerated. The problem comes from who gets to decide what is ‘true’ and how we will differentiate ‘truth’ from ‘untruth?’ Let me give an example before I’m dismissed by half my readers as an amoral academic.

Chief Magnusson’s article reminded me of a series of popular experiments conducted by Drs. Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simon. If you haven’t seen their ‘monkey business’ video, check out. If you’ve seen it, please watch it again.

[Note: If you haven’t seen the video, watch it before you continue reading. Once you know what to look for, the effect isn’t the same. Alright, you’ve been warned …]

Now that you’ve watched the video, a few questions:

• For those of you who just watched this for the first time, did you see the gorilla?

• For those of you who watched the original video and are watching this version for the first time, did you notice the curtains change color or the person who walked off camera?

• For those of you have seen this version before, did you see the gorilla or the other changes when you first watched the video?

Selective Attention and Inattentional Blindness. I have to admit, the first time I watched the video I missed the gorilla—just like 50% of others who watch for the first time. Chabris and Simon used the video to study the effects of selective attention and inattentional blindness. When we devote our limited attentional resources to a particular task, we have less attention to give to other things. The more of our attentional resources we devote to one thing the more likely we are to miss other things, even apparently obvious things like a gorilla. Interestingly enough, people who are not given the task of counting basketball passes rarely miss the gorilla.

“Truth” vs. “Untruth.” If after watching the video for the first time I was asked to write a report, give an official statement, or testify in court as to what I saw, my ‘truth’ would not have included a gorilla. I might have been able to accurately recall the number of passes made by the players in white shirts but if I was asked under oath if a gorilla walked into the middle of the group of people I was watching, turned toward the camera and pounded its chest my answer would have been an emphatic: “No!”

The problem is, my truth would not have aligned with the facts of the case. My truth and my resulting statement would, based on the material facts, have been a factual untruth. Furthermore, the investigators, administrators, and triers of fact who watched the same video—without understanding what was capturing my attention when I watched it—would certainly have wondered how I could miss something as obvious and important as a giant gorilla, if indeed I was actually watching the video at all!

The question is, who should decide whether or not my report, statement, or testimony was in fact a ‘lie’? And how should the administrator whose mantra is, “You lie, goodbye” deal with such an apparent factual untruth? What would be used as ‘evidence’ in determining the veracity of my report or statements?

A Different Approach

Imagine one of the young recruits sitting next to me listening to the academy director during the first day of our law enforcement careers. Like me, maybe he took what the director said to heart and dedicated himself to never telling a lie in his official capacity and truly believed that a single lie could end his career. Now, what if that officer watched the same video and, like me, truly did not see the gorilla? However, before the officer wrote a report, made a statement, or testified in court as to what he saw, he had an opportunity to review the video and upon review clearly saw the gorilla? Which ‘truth’ should the officer tell, particularly if his chief administrator preaches absolute intolerance for ‘false’ reports or statements?

Perhaps more importantly, which ‘truth,’—the officer’s or the objective facts—would give us more insight into why the officer made the decisions he did?

To be clear, I am not recommending moral ambiguity or fluidity. To knowingly lie or perjure is absolutely wrong, disgraceful, and in some cases criminal. It should be dealt with definitively by administrators. I am, however, asserting that an officer’s truth may be different than the objective facts as they are later discovered and that just because there are inconsistencies between an officer’s written or verbal statements and the material facts in a case does not in and of itself mean the officer is lying.  Like missing a giant gorilla directly in your apparent line of gaze …

As a profession, many of us have come to accept that inconsistencies between an officer’s statement and the objective facts are likely to occur following a critical incident. However, it should be noted that the monkey business video is no critical incident. The fact is, it doesn’t take a critical incident to capture our attentional resources and render us effectively blind to things outside the narrow spotlight of our attention at any given moment. Something as simple and benign as counting basketball passes can blind us to something as big and obvious as a gorilla.

Conclusion

While simple, catchy, black-and-white mantras on professional lying may speak to our moral sensibilities and aspirations they do not capture the complexities of human behavior and organizational interactions. An administrator who relies on them as an informal decision-making tool risks sacrificing an officer’s truth. With that, they may also miss the opportunity to truly understanding why the officer made the decision she did in the moment.

We should certainly hold ourselves and each other to the highest standards of professional honesty. At the same time, we have to be careful about how we differentiate ‘truth’ from ‘untruth.’