APOLOGY RESEARCH: Law enforcement apologies

Something a little different today, recalling the recent apology by the police chief of lovely McKinney, Texas for arresting the wrong woman on drug charges.

The Police Chief ran a 2006 article entitled, “Should Law Enforcement Agencies Apologize for Mistakes?”

The common sense answer would seem to be, “Yes, of course.”

But when the lawyers get involved, it is usually a different story:

Lawyers, on the other hand, typically tell clients to admit nothing and
never apologize.

An approach which pretty much guarantees that if the wronged party is undecided about filing a lawsuit, they’ll go ahead and sue. Which is good for no one.

Except, of course, the lawyers.

However, sometimes it pays to ignore your lawyer:

An apology for wrongdoing can reduce the potential for litigation and
liability and also help maintain or restore public trust. Refusing to
admit wrongdoing may cause greater problems than the wrongdoing itself.
Most agree that public officials would be better off if they simply
admitted their transgressions, apologized, and sought forgiveness. In
recognition of these principles, some law enforcement agencies have
developed standard operating procedures for use of apology and
expressions of regret as risk management tools.

The apology as “risk management tool” still sounds a little cold-blooded, but the basic point is sound. Often when people are harmed by your actions they just want an acknowledgment from you that you messed up, that you realize you were wrong and that you won’t do it again. Yes, we live in an overly litigious society. There is always a Crazy Pants Guy out there. (He lost, by the way). But most people, I believe, are willing, even eager to forgive if you acknowledge their pain and give them a chance.

If you give them that respect, their anger may away and with it the desire for revenge and retaliation. No sane person wants to be involved in a lawsuit if they can avoid it. So, yes, it makes intuitive sense to me that a police apology can forestall a potential lawsuit … which is, in fact, good risk management. As well as being the right thing to do.

The article cites anecdotal evidence, as well as research to support what common sense tells us, but  lawyers won’t.

One interesting tidbit from the article that we will follow up on in a future post is this:

In 2000 California passed a law barring the introduction of apology-like
expressions of sympathy (“I’m sorry that you were hurt”) but not
fault-admitting apologies (“I’m sorry that I hurt you”) after accidents
as evidence of fault. Other states are now debating proposed apology
legislation, including bills that would exclude from evidence even
fault- admitting apologies.

This is a positive development. Often organizations and individuals want to do the right thing and apologize but don’t precisely because they fear the apology being used against them in court. No good deed goes unpunished.

It presents a Catch-22 situation. Your apology may prevent a lawsuit. But if it doesn’t, your apology may be used as evidence against you. In that situation, it may be safer not to apologize.

(Not to be too harsh on the lawyers, they are trained to be cautious and to think about the worst-case scenario, hence the typical advice to clam up).

A law that prevents apologies from being introduced as evidence meets a real human need. It creates room in tense situations for doing the right thing. Aside from that, it may serve the public good by reducing the number of lawsuits. Because in some cases, an apology is all the harmed person really wants.

Hopefully, the number of police departments — and other organizations — willing to apologize when appropriate will continue to grow.

For one thing, that will mean less slow apology news days here at Apology Index.

Got anything to add?