What We Can and Can’t Do – The Necessity of Staying Objective
Behavioral assessment and anomaly detection is designed to be empowering for our nation’s protectors. It is designed to help you pick the criminal out of the crowd he hides amongst. It is designed to help you recognize criminals before they present a weapon and before they conduct their attack. Behavioral analysis, however, doesn’t make you a mind reader. We can make observations and we can identify behavior that improves our decision-making, but we can never really know what is causing a person to behave that way. As we continue to gain an upper hand against the criminals we are hunting by employing behavior detection, we must always what people trained in behavioral analysis can and can’t do.
The picture below is one that I often use while teaching our Tactical Analysis Level 1 Course, Preventing The Active Shooter. When we discuss this picture in class, the focus of the conversation is around how a police officer can anticipate the behavioral baseline prior to arriving on scene and begin thinking about what the situation will look like as soon as they get the call to respond to violence. In this case, it is a gang shooting in the Nickerson Gardens Projects of Los Angeles. The purpose of the discussion is to show how conducting a mental simulation of the situation prepares an officer to make rapid decisions about which onlookers need to be contacted immediately and which potential witnesses can be followed up with later. This picture comes up about halfway through the day and by this point the students quickly pick out the woman in the white long sleeve shirt, with the white belt, jeans and white shoes as standing out from the baseline.
While that initial recognition is a success, the assessment process isn’t over just yet. Once one of the students identifies that woman as an anomaly, I always follow up by asking them the question of “why?” I leave the question intentionally short and vague so that I can watch and see how the student replies to this very important question. There are two ways that it typically gets answered, next week I’ll discuss the right way, but first, we should talk about the wrong way a person can justify their assessments. If I ask the question “why,” and the response is that she is acting dominant because she knew something, or she saw the shooting occur, or that she knows the guys, or anything else about the reason she is displaying dominance, I take the opportunity to remind the students exactly what behavioral analysis provides, what it doesn’t provide. There is a risk when an observer confuses the two.
The biggest mistake an observer can make when searching for anomalies is jumping to a conclusion about the cause for a behavior that you are observing. Jumping to a conclusion about what has led to a specific cue means that you have eliminated your objectivity. As observers, we have to stay objective, or we will continually fail to stop violence before it occurs. What being objective means is that we have to look at multiple options for what is causing the nonverbal indicators that we are assessing. Being objective means that our decisions are not being influenced by personal feelings or biases when you consider the facts and cues presented. If you are looking at someone standing in line who is displaying the uncomfortable cluster and when asked “why,” you say that they clearly are annoyed because the person at the front is moving too slowly and that is the only possible reason, you will never see the other possibilities. You’ll never know if they are uncomfortable because they are really thinking about being late for a meeting, if they are uncomfortable because they just had a fight with their spouse, or if they are uncomfortable because the person behind them is talking on their cell phone too loudly. This can be a costly mistake because the minute that you determine there is only one possible cause for a behavior, you no longer look for indicators that could lead you in another direction. When you stop looking for contradictory evidence, you stop considering other possible outcomes that might make your determination about whether the person is either an anomaly or part of the baseline more accurate.
Oftentimes people will make up their mind too quickly because they see something and remember behaving the same way, and only see the situation through their own eyes. In times where you need to make a rapid life saving decision, you should absolutely trust your intuition, but the point of this is to simply remind you that you can never be completely sure about the cause for observed behavior. Know that you can confidently assess which cluster of behavior a person falls into, and explain why that draws your attention, but remember to remain objective about the cause.