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Tragic Schemas

By Elaine Cassel

Schemas. The mental images or generalizations that form as people experience the world. Basic units of knowledge that organize past experience and provide a framework for understanding future experience.* Necessary to help us cope with vast amounts of knowledge.

The trial of New York City police officers for the murder of Amadou Diallo demonstrates the sometimes tragic consequences of relying on schemas.

Jean Piaget introduced the concept of schemas as the building blocks of intellectual development. Schemas are necessary in order for us to process the ceaseless barrage of information and events. New experiences and information (a process Piaget called assimilation) prompt us to expand or change our former schema (known as accommodation). We are (or should be) engaged in constant cognitive restructuring.

Law enforcement officers are trained to react to events that, based on previous encounters, are potentially life-threatening. The way a suspect reaches into a jacket pocket may indicate he is about to fire at an officer. A person who stops dead in his tracks and runs the other way when he sees an officer approach may be carrying contraband. Most often their schemas are accurate. But when they are wrong, the consequences may be tragic.

Unfortunately, Amadou Diallo, the innocent immigrant who was killed by 41 bullets fired by New York City police officers in February, 1999, was the victim of erroneous schemas. On February 14, 2000, Officer Sean Carroll, testifying in defense of his and fellow officers’ actions, described the misperceptions that guided their conduct. Diallo looked like a serial rapist who had eluded them for months. That rationale quickly gave way to suspicion that Diallo was, at that moment, involved in criminal conduct. Because Diallo moved from the sidewalk in front of his dwelling into the vestibule, Carroll thought he was acting as a look-out for a robbery-in-process. When Diallo reached into his pocket as the officers approached him, Diallo must have been about to shoot them.

When the officers drew their weapons, Carroll mistook the rapid gunfire as coming from Diallo’s non-existent weapon, rather than from the guns of his fellow officers. When Carroll did not see Diallo immediately fall to the floor as he was pummeled with gunfire, Diallo must have been wearing a bullet-proof vest. This mistaken belief confirmed Carroll’s misperception that Diallo was a dangerous man engaged in criminal activity and prepared to protect himself in a shootout with officers. When Carroll saw an officer on the floor, he assumed Diallo had shot him when in fact he was wounded by "friendly" fire.

Only when Carroll approached the lifeless, bullet-ridden body of this supposed dangerous man did he realize that Diallo had a wallet in his hand. There was no gun, no bullet-proof vest. Diallo was not the serial rapist they were looking for, nor was he participating in a robbery. He was guilty only of being in the wrong place—outside his apartment building, at the wrong time—when officers were looking for someone who faintly matched his description. And his innocent gestures, in the officer’s scheme of things, portended violence against them. Under these circumstances, officers are trained to shoot now, sort out the schemas later.

The jurors in Albany have determined that the officers' actions did not rise to the level of criminal conduct. But without question, their cognitive processes lead to distorted misperceptions that had tragic consequences for a man who probably feared the cops as much as they feared him. This time, the suspect was right—the schemas were all wrong.

* Bernstein, D.A., & Nash, P. W. (1999). Essentials of Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. p. 337.

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