The Role of Decision Analysis in Law Enforcement Decisions

The Role of Decision Analysis in Law Enforcement Decisions

By Ali Abbas

Decision analysis is often incorrectly criticized by the idea that people do not rely on these tools in their daily lives, and that firemen or police officers are able to make decisions by intuition and experience without the need for a theory of decision making. We argue the opposite. The recent events revolving around police officer shootings and arrests, and the escalation of protests including “black lives matter” highlight that perhaps there is a role for enhanced decision making education within law enforcement after all.

Several incidents have come to light in the past few months including the Baton Rouge incident in New Orleans and the Avon, Ohio incident including a businessman from the United Arab Emirates, Ahmed Al-Menhali, who came to Ohio for medical treatment at the Cleveland clinic. I met with Ahmed in San Diego during his visit, while he was on a business trip. We had a chance to converse in a recorded interview for one hour.


Ahmed Al-Mehali and DECIDE director Ali Abbas

For those who are unfamiliar with the incident, Ahmed stepped into the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Avon, Ohio on July 3rd 2016 to ask for a room for one month to recuperate after the treatment. He conversed with a staff member at the reception asking for deals on a month long stay and mentioned to her that he had a stroke and needed to stay for one month. He was dressed in his UAE dress, the “dish dash”. The receptionist mentioned to him that they did not have month long discounts and that she would do a search. A few minutes later, both her sister and father called 911 separately claiming that a guy had walked into to the hotel where her sister worked and had pledged allegiance to ISIS. An online video released by the Avon police department shows the police heading towards the hotel as one of them shouted “There he is” and asked him to lay on the ground. The police then approached him, handcuffed him, threw his phone into the bushes, started searching his belongings, and then moved him to the back of a police car. When Ahmed expressed pain (because the police were pressing on wounds from a recent surgery due to a stroke), one of the police officers said “yes, well he hurt me too. I hurt my nail in the pavement when I was putting the handcuffs on him”. The man sat in the back of the police car until later they received a call that this was a false claim. The man had never mentioned anything about ISIS, and certainly never made any pledge of allegiance. The police removed the handcuffs, but he was unable to locate his phone or contacts and soon after passed out and was taken to the hospital.   This is a summary of what we see in a video released by the police department. The Mayor of Avon Brian Jensen issued an apology.  The chief of the Avon police mentioned that they had followed all regulations and protocols in this incident.

While it is always easy to look back at past events and make judgements about what might have occurred, this story highlights some possibilities for improved decision making in the police force and for the possibility of learning from some of the basic principles of normative and behavioral decision making.

First, we consider the well-known cognitive bias of anchoring. Anchoring is a bias that is demonstrated when people rely too heavily on a single piece of information that resides in their salient memory when making a decision. Why is this relevant to this case? Well just before this incident, there was an incident on June 12th 2016, where an American-born man had gunned down 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. The first sentence on many media articles stated that he had “pledged allegiance to ISIS”. Take a look:

“An American-born man who'd pledged allegiance to ISIS gunned down 49 people early Sunday at a gay nightclub in Orlando”

“Mateen called 911 from the club's bathroom, a U.S. intelligence source tells CBS News' Len Tepper. Dispatchers called him back, and Mateen then pledged allegiance to ISIS

Anchoring is not an excuse for the false claim that was made, and there are many other possible explanations for the false claim, but a plausible explanation for what happened with the hotel receptionist and making the false claim about a pledge of allegiance to ISIS, when seeing a middle-eastern looking man could have been anchoring.

Another explanation of course could be unfamiliarity and bias because of the exotic-looking dress, the “dish-dash”. Indeed the United Arab Emirates has since issued an advisory for its citizens to dress in more western-looking clothes while travelling to the U.S and Europe. I asked Ahmed during the interview why he was still dressed in the “dish-dash”, and whether this was national pride.  His response was quite interesting. “It is not about national pride, and I am not sure why people have an issue with this dress” he said “I am willing to bet that these were the same types of clothes that Jesus and the disciples wore. Take a look at many of the paintings that have been drawn about the biblical times. People are dressed in the same clothes”.

Ahmed then asked me an interesting question “Do you think that if I had any intention of causing damage to this country, that I would be dressed like this? In the history of the U.S. can you tell me of one incident where a guy was dressed like this and caused harm?” Ahmed also questioned, among many other things, why the police had thrown his phone in the bushes. If they felt he was a threat, wouldn’t it be more prudent to keep the phone? And if they felt that the phone could be an explosive device (even though he was talking on the phone when they arrested him), then shouldn’t they have been more cautious with the phone than throwing it in the bushes?

Bayesian decision-making education can also help us think about other aspects such as “the chances of a false 911 call in Avon?”, “Could the police have done anything else regarding the cell phone?”, “are there any observations from the incident that could be used towards future decisions?”, “should there be better training for hotel receptionists?”, and are there other relevant behavioral biases that could be incorporated. One immediate bias that comes to mind is Availability. Availability bias is the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of an event where there is greater "availability," or greater "detail," in our memory. And if there is more detail due to concentrated media coverage, then that can provide a more perception about the likelihood of events. These lessons will not only be relevant to terrorism-perceived cases, but also to local decisions made by law-enforcement such as the Baton Rouge case.

Ahmed, who has a few investments in biotech companies in the US would like to conduct further projects in transportation in the U.S. and would also like to play a peace ambassador role, and would love to be a liaison between the US and various countries in the middle east to help bring more convergence of views and clear misunderstandings in many of the political situations we face today.