Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Proper Place for Blame: Operational Review Scheduled for the Lakewood Shootings

Governor Christine Gregoire of Washington is convening a meeting on December 30 of a number of law enforcement agencies, judges, prosecutors, and other relevant groups to examine "lessons learned" in the shootings of four Lakewood police officers last month.  This is what is often referred to as an "Operational Review."  After something significant happens, it always pays to go back and figure out what could have been done differently.  In this case, the focus will be not on the response once the shooting started, but rather the procedures that allowed the shooter to be out on the street in the first place.  Governor Gregoire has asked for recommendations about changes to state laws and the state Constitution to prevent something like this from happening again.

Immediately following a traumatic incident, people often want to have this conversation.  We saw that following the Lakewood shootings when the media pounced on the fact that the shooter had been granted clemency by then Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.  I had my head handed to me by friends in the Seattle area when I suggested, in this space, that such blame was not productive.  I should have been more specific that I did not believe it was productive at that time.  There is a time and place for an operational review, and December 30, more than a month after the shootings, is certainly reasonable.

If you look at the "popular topics" listing on the sidebar of this blog, you will see that one of the most frequent tags is "blame."  I write about blame more than I write about Critical Incident Stress Management, which is the area of expertise that even allows me to write in the first place.  Blame comes up so frequently in traumatic incidents because it is one of the first responses most of us have when we are exposed to trauma.

Blame is our response for two reasons.  First, from an evolutionary standpoint, if we are a wild animal and we can tell that the actions of another wild animal caused us to get attacked by a tiger, it is a good idea to identify that and either change that other animal's behavior or disassociate ourselves from them.  Second, assigning blame insulates us from perhaps the most traumatic idea at all, which is that trauma can strike at random.  The same evolutionary instinct that tells us to dissociate from the animal who caused the problem tells us that if we can assign blame we can control danger.

The reason that blame immediately following a trauma is not very productive is not that there isn't blame to be assigned, but rather that it interferes with us processing what has happened.  We can spend as much time as we want pointing fingers, but it will not change the outcome at all.  If our energies are devoted to finding fault, they are not devoted to coming to some basic understanding of what happened and how we are going to live with what happened moving forward.  We can vilify Mike Huckabee all we want, but those four officers are still dead, and we need to learn to live with that.

At some distance from the incident itself, we can begin to review what happened with a different eye.  The purpose of an operational review is not to vilify someone, but rather to truly figure out how to do things differently.  There is a big difference between saying, "This is all Mike Huckabee's fault" and saying, "the system, as exemplified by Mike Huckabee, has flaws that allow this to happen.  How can we fix that?"  Only when we take this problem-solving stance can we actually begin to do what we instinctively want to do, which is to prevent as much trauma as possible.

There is always at least one pitfall associated with everything we do after a traumatic incident, however, and I hope that the Governor and the agencies he has asked to participate do not fall into it.  The pitfall is that sometimes, when we review what happened, we realize that we can, indeed, completely eliminate a threat, but that the way to do so is so draconian that it has all kinds of other consequences.  In this case, for example, you could eliminate the threat of any violent criminal ever doing violence again by locking all of them away on their first offense, or even by imposing the death penalty for all violent crimes.  While that would prevent all future offenses, it would also throw away everyone who has ever been violent, even those who are not likely to offend again.  As the Governor convenes this review, let's hope that common sense is used to plug the holes and fix the flaws in the system, but that the proverbial baby is not thrown out with the proverbial bathwater.


Blue State Republican said...

I would like, if you don't mind, for you to provide your thoughts about the actual degree of responsibility Mike Huckabee's reduction of Clemmons's sentence 9 years ago from 108 years to 45 years, considering that the reduction of this sentence did not free Clemmons, but only made him eligible for parole - which Clemmons had to convince a parole board (not Huckabee) that he deserved. Huckabee merely acted to correct a sentence that was far out of line compared to that received by other offenders for similar crimes at the time - a move that was a) supported by a judge, and b)no opposed by the prosecutor.

Thank you,


Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said...

BSR- It is well above my paygrade and outside my expertise to really determine how much Huckabee is actually to blame for this. I think everyone agrees that the system didn't work, and it is possible that Huckabee was one piece of that. However, it's clear that there were lots of other lost opportunities to keep this guy behind bars, so I think it oversimplifies to say this was Huckabee's "fault."


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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