The Death of Amadou Diallo: What We Get Wrong About Police Shootings

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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In 1999, New York City Police officers shot Guinean Amadou Diallo 41 times when they mistook him for a rape suspect with a gun. Were the officers racist? Was it an accident, the inevitable, if tragic, consequence of officers having to make quick decisions in stressful situations? And how can we prevent these types of police shootings in the future?

Learn about the Amadou Diallo case and discover the details we often forget when we try to answer the question, “How could this happen?”

Mind Reading Gone Wrong: The Amadou Diallo Case

In 1999, four New York City Police officers fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, in the vestibule outside his apartment. The officers mistook Amadou Diallo for a rape suspect and thought he was pulling a gun when they approached. The “gun” was a wallet. Amadou Diallo didn’t run because he was guilty of a crime. He ran because he thought the plain-clothed officers were robbing him.

The officers were charged with second-degree murder. They were found not guilty.

While many view this tragedy as an incidence of racial profiling, Gladwell, in Blink, presents it as an extreme case of temporary autism (discussed below). The officers thin-sliced, or made snap judgments, in the moments before the first shot was fired, and the process went terribly wrong. The officers were not able to use the information on Amadou Diallo’s face to infer his feelings and intentions.

We use others’ facial expressions to predict their behavior and infer their personality. The hardest expressions to catch, and therefore interpret, are micro expressions. Micro expressions are expressions we make unconsciously. They’re almost imperceptible, lasting a fraction of a second.

This is how we thin-slice people, or make snap judgments about them—our unconscious minds make note of subtle muscle movements in the face that are too fleeting for our conscious minds to detect. Essentially, this is how we read other people’s minds. When confronting Amadou Diallo, the police’s mind-reading powers failed them. Why?

Autism as an Analogy

Our ability to read facial signals and body language is enormously sophisticated. Most of the time, we’re really good at reading people’s minds by subconsciously picking up on subtle signals. We do this thin-slicing every day.

Still, mistakes happen all the time. We get into arguments and hurt others because we misinterpret what they’re feeling or thinking.

People with autism have particular trouble reading nonverbal cues like facial expressions. Gladwell says that we can all be “temporarily autistic” when our abilities to mind read desert us. Further below, we’ll look at situations in which temporary autism is disastrous.

Causes of Temporary Autism:

  • Stress clouds our awareness and can lead to temporary autism, or “mind-blindness.”
  • Haste can also lead to mind-blindness.

Even split-second decisions take a few moments. Thin-slicing appears to be so fast it’s automatic, but it’s not. In the few seconds it takes to make a snap judgment, we’re gathering information and weighing it.

When we don’t have time to properly process information, we fall back on stereotypes. Reactions based on stereotypes are the lowest quality snap judgments. These low-quality judgments played a large part in the Amadou Diallo case.

Slowing down helps us make better decisions, even quick decisions. Waiting a beat can make all the difference. As we’ll see, the officers involved in the Amadou Diallo case didn’t wait that extra beat, a beat that could have made all the difference.

Snap-Judgment Errors in the Amadou Diallo Case

The officers approaching Amadou Diallo made several thin-slicing (snap judgments) mistakes:

  • Mistake #1: Officer Carroll saw Amadou Diallo getting some fresh air on his stoop; Carroll thought he looked suspicious. He couldn’t understand why someone would be outside after midnight in that neighborhood, unless he was the lookout for a robber. He misread the situation.
  • Mistake #2: When the police car backed up, Amadou Diallo didn’t move because he was curious; Carroll read this as brazenness.
  • Mistake #3: Amadou Diallo turned to the side and reached into his pocket for his wallet—he thought he was being robbed and was terrified; Carroll and his team thought he was reaching for a gun and was dangerous.

Amadou Diallo was first innocent, then curious, and finally terrified. All these emotions must have been plain on his face.

Usually, we can easily tell the difference between someone who’s terrified and someone who’s dangerous. Why couldn’t the officers?

Thin-Slicing Interrupters in the Amadou Diallo Case

Stress

Having to decide whether or not to fire your gun is a stressful situation, and despite what TV shows tell us, it’s an unusual situation even for police officers. Over 90% of officers go their entire careers without shooting.

Stress makes you temporarily autistic. It impairs your ability to accurately read others’ facial expressions.

It also narrows and restricts your vision, limiting the amount of information you take in. When your vision is restricted, the black edge of a wallet looks a lot like a gun.

When you see a gun, you’re not going to take your eyes off it. Part of the reason Carroll couldn’t read the terror in Amadou Diallo’s face was that he wasn’t looking at Diallo’s face.

When your heart rate goes above 175, your midbrain (the intuitive, primitive part of your brain) takes over. You can’t think clearly and you become aggressive.

All of these consequences of stress hindered the officers’ ability to effectively thin-slice.

Inexperience

Three of the officers were in their 20s. Carroll was 37. They were new to the unit, the neighborhood, and the stress that came with them. They lacked experiences that would have provided rehearsals for appropriate decision making in moments of extreme stress.

Haste

The officers in the Amadou Diallo case didn’t feel they had time to stop, even for a few seconds, to assess the situation. They thought their lives were in danger. Officers are taught to find cover, which buys them time to think, but there was no place to shield themselves outside Amadou Diallo’s apartment.

It seems like it would take a long time to fire 41 bullets. Didn’t the officers have time, after the first shots were fired and Amadou Diallo was on the ground, to reassess the situation?

In reality, it takes about 2 ½ seconds for four people using semi-automatic guns to fire 41 bullets. The whole encounter, from the moment Carroll noticed Amadou Diallo outside the building to the moment Carroll sat on the stoop sobbing, having realized his mistake, happened in a matter of seconds. It’s crucial that we find ways to slow down our intuitive decision-making processes so our thin-slicing has a chance to take in all the relevant information.

Ways to Improve the Snap Judgments of Officers

One-Officer Cars

When officers are by themselves, they’re more likely to play it safe and take their time before making decisions.

Two officers together tends to increase bravado. Two-officer teams lead to more citizen injuries and accusations of police brutality.

Also, an officer tends to feel safer with another officer. Consequently, he may charge into a situation, feeling his colleague has his back. He’s not as careful.

Training in Reading Micro Expressions

We can all become better at mind reading. Research shows that just a half-hour of practice reading people’s fleeting expressions can improve the mind-reading abilities of law-enforcement agents.

Rehearsals of Stressful Situations

One security firm inoculates its bodyguards against stress by setting up a mock assassination attempt of the person they’re guarding. The firm repeatedly shoots the bodyguards with bullet-like plastic capsules at unexpected times, until the guards are able to function in that environment without getting flustered. 

The firm also has their bodyguards repeatedly encounter an aggressive dog and tracks their heart rates (an indicator of stress level). The first time they confront the dog, their heart rates are 175, so high that their vision is impaired. By the fourth time, their heart rates are usually around 110 and they’re able to function under pressure.

The Death of Amadou Diallo: What We Get Wrong About Police Shootings

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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