When Police Measure What Doesn't Matter

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, & express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre & unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be. 
- William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, 1883
Cops understand loopholes. They get frustrated when criminal defendants are "let off" on charges because of some legal loophole. Conversely, cops are experts at exploiting loopholes in Police Department policy & other authorities of compliance. 

As a brand new policeman, I asked a gray-haired veteran about his feelings towards working in an organized labor union. His unforgettable response: "It's great. The contract spells out exactly how little work I have to do!" He was among a group of older policemen who figured out how ticket and arrest "quota" statistics were tabulated, and took advantage of any weakness in the system. 

While some of these cops were lazy slugs, most of them were "good cops." Cops you wanted there if your family or your kids needed help or were the victim of a crime. Cops who were compassionate and understanding. Cops who had the gift of gab and rarely relied on physical force. Cops who solved your problems in creative, empathetic ways. Cops who made friends in the community. Cops who did not want to be "managed" via traffic ticket or arrest spreadsheets, Excel documents, colorful charts, or other meaningless statistics. 

These same veteran police officers were frustrated when accolades, promotions, and special assignments went to younger "more productive" cops (read: wrote more tickets and arrested more people) who lacked experience, common sense, decision-making, personality, and empathy. 

Conversely, I saw aggressive cops with pages and pages of ticket, summonses, and criminal arrest stats get passed over for promotion or assignment by cops who did not "produce" as much. And those stat-heavy cops were frustrated how their numbers didn't help advance them. 

I was reminded of some of these now-retired coworkers after reading a tweet today:

I replied with two (2) tweets of my own (hopefully with responses yet to come):

The context is that various reports show about 90% of British police "uses" of Taser less-lethal weapon do not result in putting electricity into people. The showing, pointing, sparking, or other threats of a pending deployment of Taser resolved non-compliance without firing probes into the person. That's good, right?

Does this show the restraint and professionalism of the Taser cops? What if the percentage was 93% of uses did not escalate into deployment/firing of probes? Would 96% be better? 

Because, let me tell you: I know how to inflate the number to 96%. And so does every other street cop worth a crap of critical thinking --> 

Culturally encourage the unholstering, showing, pointing, and/or threatening of Taser against uncooperative citizen as much as possible. As a supervisor. As a trainer. As a respected senior officer. 

The "used-but-not-deployed" percentage will go up. 

Likewise, what was going in the 90% of uses that did not result in deployment? How many were not appropriate? How many unholstering were over-reactions? We simply do not know. There can be those critics who make a (emotional; just as illogical) case that when an officer pulls a Taser, nine (9) times out of ten (10) are unnecessary. That doesn't make sense either.

If that percentage matters (and I contend that it does not), then cops will be the ones to figure out how to manipulate it to a level where it gets someone off their backs. When you tell humans that certain measurements matter, then it becomes the focus...until it's not the focus.

So what does matter?

That 100% of Taser "uses" (both fired and not) are appropriate, reasonable, lawful, effective, and within Department policy. Yes, some of those are subjective standards; but no amount of measuring will make evaluation any more objective

When we hear about the "over 1,000 US citizens killed by police in 2017," I have a response: "Only one-thousand? Wow. I thought it'd be way higher than that." The number 1,000 lacks context, both individually and industrially. It tells me nothing. What should the number be? Zero? 100? 500? 950? 

Increases year-to-year or decade-to-decade tell me just as little. Maybe less. These comparisons lack even more social variables. 

Organizations and industries that seek excellence cannot become slaves to data, checkboxes, eye-grabbing charts, statistics, or Excel documents. These tools are merely one of a variety to help find possible trends. Those in high-reliability organizations (HROs) know that unique context matters. Forms and templates tell only part of the story -- and often not the most important parts of it! 

Measurements work when baking cakes, building skyscrapers, and dosing medicine. But in policing and other complex social endeavors, I contend that measurements too often put unnecessary pressure in places it shouldn't. We need to be sure we are asking for the right variables and collecting the right data to answer the underlying questions. Currently, we are not. 

Bad systems are beating good people everyday in policing. Let's focus on individual excellence, where our people know how to develop relationships and find creative, personalized resolutions...without incentivizing them to manipulate statistics or exploit loopholes. 

Get comfortable in not being able to measure that. 


Did you notice that the opening quote is completely contrary to my point? Good. You paid attention. You get five (5) extra credit points towards your yearly performance evaluation. If not, get back to writing parking tickets, you lazy beat copper!


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedIn


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