Examining Bias in Law Enforcement
Dr. Wayne Wallace is a career law enforcement officer. He first served in the U.S. Army as a special agent in the Criminal Investigation Command, ultimately becoming a homicide investigator in Kentucky, where a line-of-duty injury in 2004 required a radical surgery and forced him to retire. After recovering, Dr. Wallace returned to work in a prosecutor’s office, where he noticed how officers became susceptible to bias in their decision making, and began to consider the culture of law enforcement: Why do officers make assumptions and come to conclusions as they search for evidence? How does bias influence the evidence they collect—as well as what they ignore?
While a Walden University doctoral candidate, the topic became the subject of his dissertation, The Effect of Confirmation Bias on Criminal Investigative Decision Making, for which the 2015 PhD in Psychology graduate was honored with a 2016 Harold L. Hodgkinson Award. Today, he puts what he’s learned into practice on a daily basis as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Cincinnati, Indiana Wesleyan University, and Walden, when he’s not out in the field as a forensic consultant. Here, he shares why he pursued this important research:
Why did you choose to examine confirmation bias in your dissertation?
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for information that confirms your own beliefs, to ignore what does not, and to favorably reconcile ambiguous information. A hallmark of this phenomenon is the tendency to persist with one’s beliefs, often in the face of disconfirmatory evidence. Basically, officers may look only for evidence that proves their theories, disregarding any evidence that disproves them or by simply not looking for all of the evidence. My problem statement began to come into focus when, as a prosecutor’s detective, detectives would request arrest warrants from me with incomplete investigations, but fully convinced of a suspect’s guilt. Biases can strongly influence personal beliefs, particularly when they evoke strong emotions.
How did you approach the research?
I used scenarios from two of my former criminal investigations. One featured strong emotional evidence (child sexual abuse) at first, followed by mitigating evidence that lessened the emotional aspect of the report and ultimately demonstrated the suspect’s innocence. Ten items of evidence were presented with each participant registering their belief in the subject’s guilt on a scale from 0 to 10 for each item. Just like the actual criminal case this was based on, as the evidence was revealed, it became clear there was insufficient proof to support the allegation.
Recruits and patrol officers came to premature conclusions of guilt. Investigators demonstrated a willingness to follow the evidence and withheld judgment. Another feature of this research included the order in which the evidence was presented: sequentially, reverse sequentially, and simultaneously. These research findings showed that emotion, evidence presentation order, and duty assignment all influenced guilt judgment.
What were the outcomes of your dissertation?
The practical implications of this research are significant. Officers must consider all evidence rather than focusing on a single item. Officers must also be aware of the biasing effect of inculpatory evidence and temper it with professional discipline. Likewise, when exculpatory evidence is revealed, first officers must not arrive at conclusions until all available evidence is collected and considered. This is critical to identifying the guilty, as well as avoiding wrongful accusations and convictions.
How did each group react as you presented the complications in the case?
The guilt belief scale moved on a continuum with each item of evidence presented. Experienced investigators tended to follow the evidence, so the level of guilt belief they recorded moved with each item. Recruits recorded strong guilt belief and seemed to be willing to convict regardless of the additional evidence that was presented. It was clear that emotion was a considerable factor in decision making, but experience, training, and knowledge appeared to be moderating influences.
What are the most important outcomes of your dissertation—and how will you share them?
I think the most important outcomes of this study are that patience, objectivity, and a willingness to employ healthy skepticism toward one’s own evidence needs to be implemented in training, and investigative conclusions must be supported by objective facts and reliable evidence rather than instinct and suspicion. Employing peer review or supervision toward this could improve accountability and help to reduce incidents of false allegation or conviction. As a certified law enforcement instructor I hope to be able to share these findings by partnering with police agencies to provide targeted in-service training.
What advice do you have for current students?
Consider the practical implications of your research when choosing your topic. Certainly convenience sampling is a common way to find research participants, but partnering with your target audience will help to build bridges between disciplines and provide your research with a practical component. You will spend so much time working on your dissertation; make sure it is meaningful and has real potential to effect change. —As told to Claire Blome