Hillsborough and the cognitive dissonance of UK police response

In psychology there is a term called “cognitive dissonance”. The term refers to the symptoms a person faces when their behaviour does not match their thoughts, attitude, or beliefs.

Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors.

This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance etc.

For example, when people smoke (behavior) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition).[1] [emphasis in the original]

When we look at the senior officer statements on Hillsborough and the “lessons learned” see this dissonance, a dissonance that borders on schizophrenia. The cognitive overload created by the gap between public rhetoric and internal attitudes, beliefs and acts. One could go so far as to suggest this is the leading cause of stress within the police. They are told to think one way and they have to behave another way.

“Uphold the law, but cover for your colleagues”

“Tell the truth, but make sure your statements match.”

“Treat people fairly, but the [insert local minority] are a problem.

To deal with such cognitive dissonance, a person will seek to focus on that which creates the most harmony. They will focus on what they can control and is easier to reconcile. The person may become focused on a specific part of their behaviour such as great attention to personal grooming even though their house is in disarray. The police are no different.

When we consider the response to Hillsborough verdicts earlier this week, we see cognitive dissonance at work.  On the Police Professional web site, we see an article quoting a number of senior officials involved in the South Yorkshire Police and nationally. The statements help us to understand some of the reasons why the public have less trust in police to reform. The following remarks are based on the article that is found at this link.[2]

Hillsborough as a health and safety case study.

The comments focus exclusively on the police response to the way events are managed. They explain that they have learned lessons from Hillsborough. One would expect nothing less. Their professional role is to manage these events safely. No one disputes their success as large public events are safer. Indeed, from the litany of comments, one would believe that health and safety was the sole issue to Hillsborough.

Except that is not the issue The survivors did not have to wait 27 years for a health and safety ruling. Health and safety for events was not at issue. We know that was not the issue because the health and safety lessons were applied immediately and continually after the disaster. No one waited 27 years to start to admit health and safety changes were needed or to implement them. Yet, this is what the police statement would have us believe if we did not know anything about the issue. Here are the statements.

“The Hillsborough disaster changed the way in which major sporting events are policed and very many lessons have been learned.” But he added: “Today, with improvements in training, communications and technology, it is almost impossible to consider how the same set of circumstances could arise again.” David Crompton Chief Constable South Yorkshire Police

“Officers would not be in the same position of commanding a football match without being trained by their professional body, the College of Policing.”  Chief Constable Alex Marshall, College of Policing CEO

Hillsborough “shaped how we police football matches”, adding: “Sadly the changes we have made since then can never take away from the seriousness of the police failures at Hillsborough.” Sara Thornton, National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Chair, Chief Constable

“Today’s policing standards — such as strict procedures, improved equipment and health and safety standards — were simply not in place 27 years ago, nor indeed the current ability and frameworks for junior officers to question senior officers’ decisions.  Neil Bowles, Chair of South Yorkshire Police Federation

What is the elephant in the room?

The public distrust the police because they appear institutionally unable to talk about the elephant in the room. They cannot talk about systemic corruption, a culture that is simply unable to hold itself to account except in a superficial way. No matter how grave a police officer acts, the first response is always “They are a rogue officer” as if they emerge spontaneously without anyone noticing or intervening until it becomes unavoidably obvious. There has never been a police force or a Chief Constable that has stood up and said “We have a toxic culture and we are going to change it.” The failure to be honest with themselves and therefore with the public is what creates the crisis of legitimacy. It is what is at the heart of Hillsborough except the police appear unable or unwilling to talk about it.

Two issues are at Hillsborough’s heart. First, the police unlawfully killed 96 people. Second, the police covered it up, denied it, and lied about it for 27 years. These are the issues that matter to the public, yet no senior police officer has publicly condemned either of these behaviours. None have said “There but for the grace of God goes our police force.” They may have said that quietly in the dark to themselves, but they will not discuss that openly within their force or publicly. No senior police officer has publicly condemned the institutional lies that were sustained for 27 years. A culture that ensured the truth would be covered up.

How have the police responded?

The police respond by pointing to ongoing criminal investigations. They claim they do not want to prejudice the cases. Yet, this troubles the public. In any other cases involving the public, the police have commented publicly and freely about alleged perpetrators. When it comes to their own “dirty laundry” they go quiet.

What is undeniable is that officers lied. What is undeniable is that South Yorkshire Police have a culture that tolerates cover-ups. We know from Hillsborough and Rotherham that the culture is flawed. The same abuse of power is present in both cases. In the latter, it is now apparent that police officers were involved in the abuse. Yet, no senior police officer has spoken out about 27 years of a culture in denial. Even when judgements are rendered, it is now a fact that the South Yorkshire Police force unlawfully killed 96 people, no senior police officer has condemned the force.

Here is what Sara Thornton said on the day the fact was verified in law.

“The impact of the tragedy at Hillsborough was felt across policing. It has shaped how we police football matches because we are committed to doing all we can to prevent anything like this ever happening again.  Sadly the changes we have made since then can never take away from the seriousness of the police failures at Hillsborough and what that has meant for so many people over so many years.”[3]

There is no mention that she condemns a police force that could kill 96 people. She does not condemn a culture that denied this for 27 years *even though* a senior officer admitted to the lie. Perhaps the hope is that the criminal investigations will reinforce the comforting myth of “rogue” officers or the equally comforting myth of “a string of blunders so no one is at fault.”[4] These are comforting myths because they point to only one thing that no one wants to discuss publicly—the system. The system is the culture, the way things are done, which is not discussed. What the public want to know is why? Why are the police unable to condemn or discuss publicly a corrupt culture that lasted for 27 years?

That which we cannot talk about us is what haunts us

Why is it that senior police officers cannot talk about a corrupt culture? A culture that denied the truth for 27 years? A culture that encouraged silence despite officers knowing that it was a lie? For 27 years South Yorkshire Police lived and defended a lie. The lie is known but no senior officer will talk about it. Instead, they talk about better event safety, about better event communication, about learning the lessons of event planning.

Cognitive dissonance on a national scale.

What we have is cognitive dissonance on a national scale. We have a problem that we cannot talk about so we will talk about what works.

South Yorkshire Police are not a rogue force. If this becomes the belief, you begin a journey that ends with a dangerous truth. If you scale the rogue officer defence upwards to the police force, you will arrive at a constitutional crisis. Perhaps senior police officers and Government ministers know this instinctually.

Even if that truth is not to be discussed openly, one thing is clear. There will continue to be cover-ups, lies, and corruption until the cognitive dissonance is treated. The cognitive dissonance will create more officer stress, more abuse of power, and increased public distrust. Until the police can openly discuss a cultural problem as clear-cut as Hillsborough, the police cannot regain the trust that has been lost. Their public behaviour will never match what they know privately.

 

[1] http://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html Cognitive Dissonance by Saul McLeod published 2008, updated 2014

[2] http://www.policeprofessional.com/news.aspx?id=26010

[3] http://news.npcc.police.uk/releases/the-changes-weve-made-since-hillsborough-can-never-take-away-the-seriousness-of-the-police-failures

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/30/jean-charles-de-menezes-police-officers-shouldshould-not-be-prosecuted-echr

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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5 Responses to Hillsborough and the cognitive dissonance of UK police response

  1. flynnroad says:

    Could the source of the cognitive dissonance be what happens should the admit liability?

    If they admit some sort of liability, could they be held legally and financially accountable? If so, would it be enough to destroy the police force? Is the financial accountability even predictable?

    If there is some sort of large financial accountability, then given the police force is a public institution, that would amount to an asset transfer from some residents to others. The residents losing their asset are the ones paying the penalty and they didn’t even really do anything wrong.

    Perhaps the way out of this mess is to have some sort of Nelson Mandela like reconciliation and forgiveness process, such that the police can admit they are wrong without suffering the consequences, which could never truly be paid anyway given the value of a human life.

    I don’t know… just some thoughts given this is the first I heard of this situation 🙂

  2. May I point out, that as an officer, I repeatedly discuss toxicity within the culture. I appreciate that I’m not a senior officer, but there is sustained work ongoing to address the very issues you discuss in this article (which I think is very good by the way :-)). I also recognise the lack of senior public narrative that you describe.

    Challenging article, I enjoyed it!

    • Thank you for the response to the post. I note that since I published it, Sara Thornton has spoken out about the need to address culture.
      I appreciate that you (and other) officers will talk about toxicity so that it can be addressed. I would be surprised if officers were not discussing it since the police are not beyond reform nor are they immune to the need to reform even if on their own terms.
      My concern, until Sara Thornton spoke, was that it was not addressed as a cultural issue. I also note that in the past Sir Robert Mark worked to end corruption within his force. My focus is on the overall culture across the police.
      I also understand that there is a lot of work going on to reform the police, some of it overdue and some of it a bit too soon, which will change the culture. The concern, though, is with the public understanding. Too often the term reform means to rearrange without change. It is one thing to go through the exercise of reform only for the organisation (the culture) to exhale after the change (minister/government/crisis) has passed.
      See for example another blog I write:
      https://thoughtmanagement.org/2013/07/10/culture-eats-your-structure-for-lunch/
      For this reason, I focus on the culture and its public face.
      Overall, the police do a good job. My concern, though, is with the parts that are hidden, where decisions are made to put victims under surveillance, to use extra-legal methods, to work with potentially corrupting partners (cf Media and NOTW). The gap between frontline and these decisions is vast which adds to the potential, if not the reality, of the cognitive dissonance.

      I am glad you found the article good and challenging. I hope it helps those who seek reform. Good luck with a terribly difficult yet absolutely necessary job.
      L.

  3. Ian says:

    Although there is a clear definition in your writing over the last few weeks of the rule of law, the rule by law appears to become at times conflated with it even though the arguments presented appear to be precisely focused around that issue.1
    By including politics and considering the issues falling out of the application of things like Ben Johnsons address to the Muse2 3:-

    “Get him the time’s long grudge, the court’s ill-will,
    And, reconciled, keep him suspected still.
    Make him lose all his friends, and, what is worse,
    Almost all ways to any better course;
    With me thou leav’st a better Muse than thee,
    And which thou brought’st me, blessed Poverty.”

    and the social consequences in those areas reveal power oriented views which will undoubtedly guide the behaviour of some by singularly including any redistribution of power in a way suitable to their own views of the good.

    Those points become important as arguments regarding a singular rule of law become incoherent when the necessary rules and structures of any system which functions in a way supportive of the ongoing social applications of technological advances4 because technological systems demand rule by law – i.e. the software algorithms – causing a struggle to apply a generic comprehension to become confused in a way supportive of particular progressive interests rather than people, and which then often become more widely perceived as the correct mode of conduct. Considered in that same generic way many responses to systemic failures may be seen in a similar fashion to that provided to Laocoon in mythology for the message he was communicating; as such responses become more comprehensible than complexly attributed ones.
    Whilst considerable pressures are frequently required to effect institutional changes do you consider that the legal attribution of blame to a single individual or group of individuals allowing for justice to be seen to be done is always the correct answer? Or should justice systems recognize more of the complexity involved? Does a very refined focus allow clarity, or fog the issues?
    In short, are the systemic problems you have been describing and decrying socially endemic such that requiring others to become better merely allows the body politic to feel better about itself rather than reflecting about possible root causes.
    1. Winston, K. The Internal Morality of Chinese Legalism. 2005. Available at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=757354
    2. Chesterton, G. K. Eugenics and Other Evils, 1922.
    3. Jonson, B. Ben Jonson. Epigram 65. To my Muse. 1853. Available at: http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/jonson/epigram65.htm
    4. Elish, M. C. Moral Crumple Zones: Cautionary Tales in Human-Robot Interaction (We Robot 2016). 2016. Available at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2757236

  4. Ian says:

    Although there is a clear definition in your writing over the last few weeks of the rule of law, the rule by law appears to become at times conflated with it even though the arguments presented appear to be precisely focused around that issue.1
    By including politics and considering the issues falling out of the application of things like Ben Johnsons address to the Muse2 3:-

    “Get him the time’s long grudge, the court’s ill-will,
    And, reconciled, keep him suspected still.
    Make him lose all his friends, and, what is worse,
    Almost all ways to any better course;
    With me thou leav’st a better Muse than thee,
    And which thou brought’st me, blessed Poverty.”

    and the social consequences in those areas reveal power oriented views which will undoubtedly guide the behaviour of some by singularly including any redistribution of power in a way suitable to their own views of the good.

    Those points become important as arguments regarding a singular rule of law become incoherent when the necessary rules and structures of any system which functions in a way supportive of the ongoing social applications of technological advances4 because technological systems demand rule by law – i.e. the software algorithms – causing a struggle to apply a generic comprehension to become confused in a way supportive of particular progressive interests rather than people, and which then often become more widely perceived as the correct mode of conduct. Considered in that same generic way many responses to systemic failures may be seen in a similar fashion to that provided to Laocoon in mythology for the message he was communicating; as such responses become more comprehensible than complexly attributed ones.
    Whilst considerable pressures are frequently required to effect institutional changes do you consider that the legal attribution of blame to a single individual or group of individuals allowing for justice to be seen to be done is always the correct answer? Or should justice systems recognize more of the complexity involved? Does a very refined focus allow clarity, or fog the issues?
    In short, are the systemic problems you have been describing and decrying socially endemic such that requiring particular others to become better merely allows the body politic to feel better about itself rather than reflecting about possible root causes.
    1. Winston, K. The Internal Morality of Chinese Legalism. 2005. Available at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=757354
    2. Chesterton, G. K. Eugenics and Other Evils, 1922.
    3. Jonson, B. Ben Jonson. Epigram 65. To my Muse. 1853. Available at: http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/jonson/epigram65.htm
    4. Elish, M. C. Moral Crumple Zones: Cautionary Tales in Human-Robot Interaction (We Robot 2016). 2016. Available at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2757236

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