Thursday, 5 November 2009

Applying Sensemaking: the Amadou Diallo Tragedy

Yes, I know, I know: I had written that I was going to write only two posts on sensemaking. But the other day I was thinking: "Ok, I have written two very theoretical posts on sensemaking. Wouldn't it be nice to try to write a more "applied" one?" So, I started to think about possible examples of "sensemaking in action" and the famous story of the murder of Amadou Diallo came to my mind. I had previously read it in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, and I already knew Bruce Springsteen had written a song about it [American Skin (41 Shots)], but it is anyway easy to find a description of the events in the internet. So, I decided I would try to briefly apply the theoretical points we have seen in the two previous posts (first & second) to the Diallo murder case to better understand how sensemaking works. Actually, the following case is a case where sensemaking miserably failed, or, better didn't work in the right way. Here's shortly what happened (if you want a more detailed description of what happened you can follow this link).

February 1999. That night, four plainclothes officers of the NYPD were patrolling in the Bronx. Amadou Diallo, a 23 years old afroamerican guy, was outside of his building taking some fresh air. When the policemen noticed him, they thought that he was fitting the description of a suspect that had previously raped numerous women in the area. They stopped and got out of the car. Diallo, noticed these four big men coming towards him and probably got scared. They told him that they were police officers and asked to have a talk. He probably didn't believe them and started running inside, towards his appartment. Two of the four policemen started chasing him. As he was reaching for his door, he noticed the two guys approaching and pulled of his wallet out of his pocket . One of the two officers, noticing that Diallo was taking a black square object out of his pocket, started yelling: "He's got a gun, he's got a gun!". The two policemen, also scared, started fire. One of the two policemen, instintively backpedalling, fell off the stairs. The other guys, in the general mess caused by the yelling and the gunshots, thought he had been hit by a gunshot and opened fire too. After Diallo was lying death on the floor, the shooting stopped. One of the NYPD officers approached the Guinean guy to sadly discover that the thing he had taken out of his pocket was only a black wallet, not a gun. Diallo had thought that the four guys wanted to rob him or maybe wanted to show his ID card. 41 gunshots were fired, 19 hit the guy.

We can say that correct sensemaking failed in both directions. Both "parties", constructed and interpreted the situation in the wrong way. Take into consideration, that the whole event happened very very fast. For simplicity reasons I will analyze the case only from the NYPD department side (I will purposely try to avoid any judgment on the matter). So, the first important point to notice is, in my opinion, the situation (point 3: enacted environment) and how it interacted with the four policemen identities (point 1: the role of identity in "deciding" through which lenses we see the world): they were in the Bronx, notoriously one of the most dangerous zones in NY. Moreover, the four policemen were already looking for a suspect. Therefore as they noticed Diallo outside of his door, they immediately thought he was the guy they were looking for. As we have seen in the last post on the topic, sensemaking is focused on extracted cues (point 6): a black guy standing out of a bulding in the Bronx doing nothing in the middle of the night. In an immediate retrospective analysis (point 2) of the situation they thought that something was not right, so they decided to interrogate the black guy. The fact that Diallo started running as they asked him to have a talk, probably confirmed their beliefs (another extracted cue on which they focused on in making sense of the situation). The fact that they thought that the "black thing" Diallo was taking out of his pocket, and later, when the police officer fell off the stairs, that he had been shot, are two other elements going in the same direction of the previous one (extracted cues). You can also notice how all the other points that I haven't mentioned so far played a role: the social stereotypes about black people living in the Bronx surely influenced how the whole situation was enacted. Also the idea that sensemaking is driven by plausibility rather than accuracy is quite evident and doesn't need to be commented.

So, I hope that with this example I have been able to give a quick flavour of how the theory I had presented on sensemaking can be applied to reality. Of course, the analysis I just suggested is very personal and superficial, but the aim of this post was not to offer a detailed analysis of a very complex case, but rather to offer an example of how the concept of sensemaking is useful in interpreting situations. If you are interested in such themes, and would like to read more, you can read K. Weick's analysis of the Mann Gulch disaster (a big fire in which 13 smoke jumpers lost their lives). In the article he provides a thorough analysis of the case and shows why and how sensemaking failed in that occasion.