Opinions without foundation

By Jamie Borden  |   Apr 27, 2021

The profession of law enforcement is facing unprecedented negative scrutiny. From my perspective as a retired officer and professional in the analysis of police-involved critical incidents, the most prominent issue is the propagation of opinions without foundation.  We have all read posted opinions regarding the actions of officers who are in the spotlight based on the outcome of events that have captured the media’s attention.  These opinions are based on the “obviousness” or the “salience” of certain aspects of the event.  The concern is, very few individuals know all of the intimate details related to the event. Those that do have the knowledge and the foundation to conduct a full analysis are not the source of these inflammatory posts and arbitrary opinions.  Typically, there are clearly identifiable elements that provoke questions related to the incident. These questions inevitably generate ideas about how this scenario could have been handled, or what the officer did wrong. Ideas and opinions are two different animals. Opinions in these instances are often based on the illusions of our own abilities; the limitations of our own body of knowledge; and the narrow lens of our own experiences. What we believe we would have done, could have done or should have done in a similar situation, is hypothetical at best. This “hypothetical” is rarely based on an analytical look at the officer’s decisions and, even when it is, it is based entirely on hindsight.   

I regularly conduct investigative reviews and analytical breakdowns of complex cases. To this day, I have yet to review a case in which the decisions that were made and the resulting outcome were considered optimal by the officer involved in the incident. This is not to say that the officer’s decisions and actions were unreasonable or that the outcome was in some way avoidable.  It only means that the officer responded under the compression of time and consequences; and like most, even the officer will second guess themselves after the fact.  In many of the current cases that have captured the public’s attention, there are salient issues that are quickly identified as causal. These issues might include a particular tool, tactic, or even a demographic characteristic of the officer or the member of the public they are dealing with. Subsequently, blanket opinions or remedies surrounding this issue become the focus of how to “fix” the problem.  “The officer needs more training,” “the officer was not properly conditioned,“the officer became complacent” I’ve even read posts that personally attack an officer by saying, “The officer was just an idiot!”  All of this is damaging to law enforcement and to the communities being served by law enforcement and serves no purpose.  There is data and evidence that exists well beyond those salient concerns in these cases that require careful consideration, especially in the formation of opinions and conclusions. Although a salient issue can be quickly easily identified, there is much work to do in getting to the bottom of why a particular event occurred or continues to occur.  From my own experience in the field of training, I can say that training is not always the answer to the questions we deem “obvious”.  I have seen top operators from S.W.A.T. teams have unexpected or undesirable outcomes in spite of the dynamic training they receive, in scenarios that were not especially dynamic.  Conversely, I have seen relatively new officers operate with ease in very complex scenarios and achieve desired results and positive outcomes with very limited training.  The Question should always be “Why.”

In weapons confusion cases and other seemingly “obvious” scenarios; without proper information, we cannot make assumptions about any aspect of the officer’s reality in the moment. It is impossible for us to know the nuances of those incidents without thoroughly investigating the entire incident, there can only be assumptions and guesses. Professionals in this field – officers, line level supervision, administrators, trainers, and the professionals involved in the post-hoc analysis and adjudication of these events) should consider the following, before a public opinion is offered:

  • Even the top experts in the field do not have all of the answers, data, or evidence.
  • Most that opine or give conclusions in a public setting are doing so from their own experiences, training or relevant area of expertise, which does not necessarily encompass the underlying issues.
  • There are always multiple levels of evidence required at every salient decision point, required to develop opinions and conclusions, that cannot be known without more data. Data which may only be accessible through direct involvement in the case.
  • That nearly every publicized opinion is centered on individual ideas and is based on hind-sight attribution.  (Dangerous).
  • Simply conducting a review of an event must be based on what is “known” not what is “thought to be.”
  • The purpose behind most of these unfounded public opinions is not to better the field, it is to boost the ego of the person opining, or to improve standing in others eyes

This is not to say that these ideas should not be shared with the Law Enforcement community from the related experiences of whoever is posting the incident breakdown. However, consider the damage that may have been done by framing a scenario with this title; “A Highly Morally Questionable Shooting Caught on Badge Cam.”  This title, in and of itself, is tragically laced with unfounded “opinions.”  This is an irresponsible approach to the review of an event that is based entirely on a video and lacks foundation in every regard.  My advice is to cautiously respond to interview requests on these high-profile cases simply because these entities want to know “what I think” not “what I know.”

In short, ideas or thoughts related to what we think we know about a highly publicized critical event, are unavoidable.  On the contrary, publicized opinions and conclusions based on what we think happened, lack factual information, and can be damaging in many ways.

Idea based opinions loosely throw around terms like; automaticity, focus of attention, situational awareness, complacency and other terminology, used as a blanket “excuse.” Often times, the definition of the term, or at least how the term is being applied within the opinion, based on what we think, is not necessarily accurate.   An expert should never assume factors like: focus of attention; automatic behavior; the officer’s level of training or the officers experience; the factors that were affecting the officer’s mindset; or the data that was driving the officer’s decisions.

Most if not all of these public opinions are fueled by partial clips of video evidence. We do know or should know that video does not answer the questions related to the cognitive processes. Video shows, loosely and with significant limitations, what happened and when it happened. Video will reflect verbal inflections and provide an enormous amount of visual and auditory data, all reflecting what happened, not why it happened. Yet opinion after foundationless opinion is posted or publicized to the detriment of the officer; the fair adjudication of the case; the profession of law enforcement in general; and community relationships.

Consider the damage that is done to officers by the opinions of strangers without all of the facts. Consider that you may be in the next highly publicized event that is scrutinized or judged by the public and outside of the courtroom.  Remember, the officers that were involved in these infrequent occurrences didn’t believe it would happen to them and are adversely affected by the conclusions we draw and share without foundation.  

We should engage in the thought-provoking effect of the videos that flood our briefing rooms; train hard and think outside of the box; use the salient information we do have to learn from these scenarios, to create safer officers and to be aware of the potential outcomes. However, we should not assume that we know why the outcome was what it was; assume we know what the officer was experiencing; assume we know what the cause of the outcome was; and we certainly should not give an opinion based on what we think happened

Stay safe and thank you to all of the officers that continue to do this job in the current climate.  We all need you and I certainly respect the complexity of the environment you are forced to work in.