Confirmation Bias and the Criminal Justice System

by | May 24, 2017 | Blog | 0 comments

Confirmation Bias is a problem within criminal justice system that often goes unaddressed. The term “Confirmation Bias” is a word used to describe a situation when a person looks for evidence to support an already formed theory, while disregarding (often unintentionally) evidence to that contradicts that theory or conclusion.

Police Officers are the evidence gatherers in criminal cases. They are first responders. They are the people who are first-on-the scene, first to investigate. Day after day Officers are called out to deal with domestic disputes, drunk drivers, and traffic offenses. Many of these types of cases expose officers to similar situations with often all-too-similar facts. Does the redundancy of facts and similarities in situations lead officers to disregard the unfamiliar facts as unimportant or unrelated? I.E. Does Confirmation Bias rear its ugly head in criminal investigations?

In my opinion, it does. First, in addressing these questions, I think it is important to think of law enforcement officers as people first, and law enforcement second. A Police Officer wasn’t born 35 with a badge on his or her chest. He or she was born to a mother and a father like each and every one of us. Officers grow up as children within communities, surrounded by other people, exposed to whatever biases their parents and communities impose upon them. It isn’t until later in their lives that they choose law enforcement as a career.

Why is this important to remember? It’s important because “Police Officer” is a job title, like “Accountant,” “Grocery Clerk,” and “Waitress.” Just think about these job titles for a moment. Are all accountants created equal? No, they aren’t. Ask around. I’m sure you will easily find someone whose taxes were not filed as promised or took deductions that should not have been taken and later received a nasty letter from the IRS.

The same goes for the wait staff at restaurants. Everyone has had the unpleasant experience of an inattentive waiter or waitress at a restaurant. Most people have also experienced the pleasant dining experience that comes with helpful wait staff. And what does a person do when they consistently receive bad service at a restaurant. They don’t return, that’s what. They stop going and they never subject themselves to the same bad service again.

Unfortunately, in the criminal justice system, a person has no such control over the Police Officer that happens to clock him or her going 80 in a 65 zone (come on you all know you’ve done it). That officer could be terrible at his job, but you can’t simply go to another officer like you would an accountant or stop frequenting that restaurant as you would after receiving poor service. You’re stuck with the officer in which you are faced along with all of his or her biases.

Will confirmation bias lead to that officer smelling of that an bottle of beer your dumb roommate tossed in the back of your car two nights ago? Will that officer believe you when you tell him or her that the beer can isn’t yours, that you haven’t been drinking, and in fact your friend didn’t even inform you that he was littering in your car?

The answer to those question is that it depends. It depends on the officer’s conformational bias. If he or she already believes you are drunk, he or she is probably not going to bother testing to see if the beer can is cold. He or she is also not going to bother calling your friend to confirm whether or not he so selfishly threw his beer can in the back of your car. That officer is also not going to believe a word you say.

If the officer has already formed the conclusion that you are lying about the beer can being your “friend’s,” he or she is going to run you through field sobriety testing. Later he or she will ultimately arrest you if you choose not to put your mouth on that dirty breathalyzer where hundreds of other people have previously placed their mouths and blown.

So, should confirmation bias be addressed more thoroughly within the criminal justice system? I think the answer is a very emphatic “yes.” These officers are key witnesses in jury trials. They need to be considered as people first, offers second. Because after all, at the end of the day, they are merely human. People. Homo sapiens. And people are prone to mistakes. People aren’t perfect. People can unintentionally ignore facts that could lead to exoneration. People have Confirmation Bias.

Wayne A. Wallace’s 2015 Doctoral Dissertation entitled <a href=”http://scholarworks.waldenu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1406&amp;context=dissertations”>The Effect of Confirmation Bias in Criminal Investigative Decision Making</a> is quite informative on the subject of Confirmation Bias.

“Unfortunately, in the criminal justice system, a person has no such control over the Police Officer that happens to clock him or her going 80 in a 65 zone (come on you all know you’ve done it). That officer could be terrible at his job, but you can’t simply go to another officer like you would an accountant.”