How to stop innocent people getting shot

Stopping innocent people getting shot in Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

In his fascinating book on our unconscious instincts, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell starts one chapter with the shooting of sidewalk peddler Amadou Diallo by New York police in 1999.

Race was, of course, an element. But what Gladwell showed was that such deaths could be reduced by taking some very simple steps.

Innocent people getting shot

Like many people shot by police, Diallo was indeed black. He was also innocent and thought he was being mugged by the four plain-clothed white men with guns who ran at him.

They in turn suspected he was a burglar. He held out his wallet, but one policeman thought the small black object was a gun and fired.

A second policemen fell. The others assumed he’d been shot and fired too. In all, 41 rounds were fired in a few brief seconds by the end of which Diallo was dead.

Gladwell now asks what was going on in their minds. These were not racist cops and indeed were distraught when they realised they’d taken an innocent life.

So was his death racist or an accident?

Gladwell sets out to show that is was partly both and partly neither.

The fact that Diallo was black clearly contributed. Much research has now shown that we all have instinctive reactions to ethnic differences – whatever our own race or even our own beliefs.

If the police believed that a black person was more likely to have a gun, then they would be more likely to think they’ve seen one.

And that bias may not have been conscious.

However, Diallo was not a criminal and a cool glance would have shown (a) he was not acting aggressively and (b) he was holding a wallet not a gun.

Stress stops thinking

The problem was, the policemen were not cool. They were hyped up with adrenalin. And when we are in a state of high tension, the mind starts to shut down.

This goes back to our origins. A person living in the Stone Age needed to react fast to danger. If you heard what might be a tiger, you wanted to run fast. Those who stopped to think generally didn’t live long enough to pass on their DNA to future generations.

So, we’re descended from the people who acted first and thought later. The more extreme the stress becomes, the more our higher thinking stops working.

The matter of time

To make things worse, there’s the matter of time. It’s easy to underestimate how fast such events take place.

Gladwell describes an assassination attempt in South Korea in which the would-be killer first accidentally shoots himself in the leg, then shoots at and misses the president, hitting someone else, before the bodyguard gets up and shoots back, hitting an innocent bystander.

The whole incident took not 15 seconds or 20 seconds but a total of 3.5 seconds, from beginning to end. This is typical of most such events.

The part of the brain that could have rationally interpreted Diallo’s expression, or looked and said “it’s a wallet” neither had the time or the emotional space in which to work.

Simple steps save lives

This is why many fatal shootings take place after car chases. The police drivers are so hyped up and in such a rush, they can no longer think straight.

So one simple step that many police authorities have taken is to ban high-speed chases. This is not only because of the danger of crashing into bystanders but also to avoid pushing the police into a dangerous state of tension.

Another simple step has been to give officers detailed instructions as to how to approach suspects, to ensure the safety of both sides.

For example, when stopping a car they are supposed to keep well back and stand behind the driver, shining a light on his lap. This makes it almost impossible for the driver to pull a gun and turn to shoot, without making it very obvious.

A third step has been to move from two-officer squad cars to one-. This may feel counter-intuitive, but lone officers are going to be much more wary about rushing into danger, far more likely to slow down and assess the situation first.

In some areas, such as Dade County, Florida, simple steps like these have already resulted in a dramatic reduction both in complaints against police and in injuries, to officers and to civilians.

And should reduce them even further as we learn more about how the mind works under stress.

Mixed reviews

Blink received mixed reviews when it came out. Indeed, earlier sections do appear to encourage a kind of new-age mysticism about the power of the unconscious.

However, overall, the book is more subtle and complex than that, and shows, as in the Diallo chapter, how our instinctive reactions can also lead us astray.

But – if we are aware of this – we need not be slaves to them.


What can we learn from the murder capital of Europe?

6 (easy) ways to overcome procrastination

Don’t trust Jed Mercurio – he’s a crime writer

If you found this article interesting, please share.