Systems Failures in Policing

31 Pages Posted: 17 May 2018 Last revised: 16 Jan 2019

See all articles by Joanna C. Schwartz

Joanna C. Schwartz

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law

Date Written: May 16, 2018


This Essay, an adaptation of my 2018 Donahue Lecture, argues that acts of police violence and overreach should be viewed as systems failures. Researchers who study error in aviation, medicine, and other complex organizations agree that errors are the product of human failings and poorly designed systems. When tragedies occur, human error almost always plays a role — people misperceive information, process it incorrectly, make careless mistakes, and sometimes act recklessly or maliciously. But faulty systems also play a role — technologies can be confusing, rigorous schedules can fatigue workers, organizational culture can stifle productive communication, and policies can put workers in situations where they have to make difficult decisions under conditions of high stress. A key insight of this body of research is that it is impossible to cure limitations of human perception, cognition, and decisionmaking. Instead of focusing exclusively on training people to change their behavior — and threatening them with criminal, civil, or department sanctions if they fail to do so — the systems approach adjusts equipment, schedules, protocols, and policies in ways that can make it harder for people to err and can reduce the impact of error when it inevitably occurs.

A focus on systems contributors to error has been used for decades to improve the safety of aviation, nuclear power, and other complex industries. Over the past thirty or so years, medicine has adopted some of aviation’s strategies. It is time for law enforcement to embrace a systems approach. When a person is shot by the police we must still examine whether the shooting was justified, and officers should continue to be disciplined, sued, and prosecuted when they violate department policy or the law. But then conversation must turn to whether the shooting was preventable, and the ways in which technology, schedules, protocols, and policies could be adjusted to prevent another shooting in the future. The shift in perspective will likely be harder in policing than it has been in medicine or aviation, but is necessary if we want to make policing safer.

Keywords: Policing, safety

JEL Classification: K14, K32

Suggested Citation

Schwartz, Joanna C., Systems Failures in Policing (May 16, 2018). 51 Suffolk University Law Review 535 (2018), UCLA School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 18-20, Available at SSRN:

Joanna C. Schwartz (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

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