Their theory of mind is flawed at the root.
Like most people, law enforcement personnel think of themselves as normal-but-superior. Normal in "psychology" but superior in terms of training, courage, and other factors related to their work. Also like most people, they believe they know how other people think and feel, and that they can interpret behavior accurately. Yet time and again, they have focused too early on the wrong person, accused the innocent, refused to consider alternatives, and made errors of judgment and interpretation.
I know that law enforcement is a difficult, dangerous job, a job that places great stress on those who do it, leading to frustration, anger, fear, depression. I know that modern towns aren't "Mayberry" and Andy Griffith was an actor playing a law officer and didn't have to be one in real life. But that's part of my reason for writing this. While police officers know they aren't Andy Griffith, they don't seem to realize that the rest of us can't be the good people of Mayberry. All of us are in a different time. All of us are subject to the same stressors as the police. And that was only fiction, even then.
Law enforcement self-selects for people who like the rules to be clear, black and white, and who like being in power. That kind of person--the person who prides himself or herself on being law-abiding, doing things the right way, categorizing things into right v. wrong, following all the rules, while holding power over others--is not the kind of person who has much understanding of those who are different, or who accepts that thinking differently, feeling differently, are valid, legitimate, honest ways to think, feel, be. Studies have shown that most law-enforcement personnel are drawn from working-class and lower-middle-class conventional backgrounds: they are conservative by upbringing and come into law enforcement already suspicious of "intellectuals," of the scientific process, of people different from themselves and their background. This is why, for years, most rape reports were disbelieved unless the woman was found dead with wounds all over her. Good women, the conservative belief goes, aren't raped (except by intruders of another race and even then they might not have resisted "enough.")
Mind-reading of this type hinders effective law enforcement many ways. For one thing, it affects the validity of testimony from law enforcement....if the officer is already convinced that X did the deed, can the officer be believed about the behavior the officer witnessed (not even the interpretation of it--the behavior itself?) Not necessarily. In the case discussed in the New Yorker article, police claimed that the suspect "showed no emotion" at the scene, but videotape taken that night shows that he did. Officers remember what fits with their theory of mind: what they expected of someone they'd already decided was guilty. It affects judgment in the field--officers do not expect citizens to be frightened in situations where they, the officers are frightened; or to act on that fear in ways that officers themselves act when frightened.
They demand from citizens a level of behavior that they themselves do not achieve or model. They do not consider the effect of their demeanor, their words, their actions on those they encounter except that they "demand respect," because they have a very faulty understanding of how human interactions actually work. Thus dashboard cameras now used by some departments (and shown on newscasts) show officers yelling and screaming, yanking people around, threatening, etc. Yelling and screaming and threatening raise the tension of a situation and are more likely to cause fear-driven (and thus erratic and sometimes violent) behavior. Ditto with wearing scary black uniforms and breaking down doors--most citizens think "home invasion, criminals!" not "oh, it's just the police.") When did this become "normal?" It wasn't always normal in all jurisdictions, anymore than most policemen used to wear black. (I blame the "reality" cop shows, the Fox channel Cops! and the like.)
This is a serious problem when women driving alone at night are stopped by police--since most women have been warned that not everyone with a flashing light pulling you over is really the police, and police officers on such shows as Oprah have told them to drive slowly to the nearest lighted public place (like a gas station.) Yet women have been arrested for "resisting arrest" when following this advice and in some cases pulled bodily from their cars and thrown to the ground. Charges have been upheld by local courts (with male judges, by the way.) (A place we definitely need a law to protect women--to ensure that in all jurisdictions a woman driving alone and responding to flashing lights by slowing down and driving to a well-lighted public place before stopping is not considered a fugitive and not subject to force, and to instruct police officers that however time-consuming it is to follow such a driver to the next safe place to stop, they should not let their frustration overcome their common sense.)
It's also a problem with the police in an area have decided that a bad guy isn't such a bad guy--as in the Garrido case. So convinced were the police that this guy on parole was really a nice regular guy, reasonable and intelligent, etc.--not to mention religious, which cuts a lot more ice with the police than it should--that when they got yet another complaint from neighbors about children, tents, noises, in the back yard, they just chatted with Garrido in his front yard and never actually looked. In too many cases, complaints from neighbors that actually linked to abductions have been ignored if the perpetrator was glib enough with local police--able to chat easily and calmly with them.
Law enforcement officers do not expect innocent people to be indignant or angry when accused of a crime they did not commit. Yet they themselves get angry if accused of misbehavior they feel wasn't wrong. They do not expect innocent people to take any precautions (such as calling a lawyer) in situations where they feel afraid, uncertain, in danger. So "lawyering up" has become "proof of guilt" for many law enforcement officers, rather than something they should expect from anyone who is used to using lawyers for advice in situations where they aren't sure what to do. (The fact that most citizens know it's legal for the police to lie to them, while it's illegal for them to lie to the police, increases the likelihood that innocent and savvy citizens will seek legal advice quickly. I certainly would. The current state of the law ensures that the accused can be lied to by police, and lied about in court, without recourse.)
Another problem mind-reading causes involved those with disabilities. I posted before about the wheelchair-bound man in the airline terminal in California: a TSA officer tried to take his carry-on bag (sitting on the floor beside his wheelchair) away on the grounds it wasn't being "observed." The man was threatened with detention for arguing with the TSA officer that he was, in fact, the bag's owner and was observing it--had observed the TSA officer trying to take it away and protested. Clearly the TSA officer assumed that someone in a wheelchair was completely incapable, not just unable to walk, and thus could not legitimately watch his own carry-on. For those with mental/behavioral differences (Tourette's Syndrome, autism, etc.) the application of rigid behavior standards can mean (has meant in some circumstances) that citizens have been accused of being drunk, on drugs, or criminals because they could not talk or speak "normally," answer questions quickly and the way the officer wanted, etc. (This puts stark fear in the heart of the mother of an autistic man!)
Last night I was watching one of those true-crime shows, because the Cowboys were demonstrating their familiar pattern of aging-fluourescent-light playing--flickering brilliance, more off than on (sloppy tackling, missed blocks, four turnovers, dropped passes, misreading obvious plays...but combined with a brilliant interception/touchdown by one defensive player and a final hail-Mary-punt-return-to-touchdown win) and I couldn't stand to watch every moment of it. I know the top guys weren't playing, but still...some of the errors you'd expect from high school players. Maybe. Anyway--the true crime show demonstrated the tendency of police departments to narrow their options too early (in this case, decide that the rape victim was really a woman having an affair making a false claim), fail to collect evidence that might conflict with their mind-reading, and make no progress in identifying the real criminal until he had committed several more crimes.
If police understood that they do not understand--that they do not know one right way for people in grief to act and look--for people who are victims of assault to act and look--for guilty and innocent to act and look--they might be able to move beyond their limited understanding of human psychology and work more on the facts, less on the fantasies. They might learn logical thought and the rules that govern research--since they are naturally attracted to rules. That would be easier on them than learning more about people--opening their minds to more possibilities of human motivation and behavior. The latter might make them more effective in the long run, but giving up their belief that they are experts and can mind-read everyone they see would be a start. And in the short and long run, this could lead to better and more effective law enforcement. Fewer missed chances to gather actual data, fewer hasty leaps to the wrong conclusions--and thus a better chance of identifying and capturing the real criminals and preventing more crimes. Fewer traumatized innocents who are actually injured twice--by the crime and by the police--and thus a better outcome for the victims of crime.
If the police understood how their own behavior affects others--if they knew which of their behaviors were likely to make things worse--they might create fewer problems. Kill fewer people who had done nothing deserving a death sentence (if indeed they'd done anything wrong.) Regain the trust of citizens who once trusted the police and now do not. It should be possible to teach police, at the cadet level, to understand the basics of behavior--the whole behavior 1/consequence thing--so they develop better strategies for dealing with the public they're supposed to serve.