Breaking the Law of Unintended Consequences

by Superintendent Gary Askin


During the days and weeks after 911 police stumbled upon a weapon so powerful it virtually halted drug trafficking and reduced crime. Best of all it was free, it required no judicial oversight, no legislative authority to govern it, and no Police Board approval to use it.  As police officers, this was our finest hour and we didn’t even realize it.  We unwittingly created a scenario that Sociologist Robert Merton identified in 1936 called  “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action.”

What exactly is that? Consider this example

In the 1981 movie Body Heat, William Hurt’s lawyer character hatches a plot with his lover, played by Kathleen Turner, to murder the woman’s husband.  While plotting, Hurt receives some sobering advice from an experienced criminal client, portrayed with trademark style by Mickey Rourke

“I got a serious question for you”, says Rourke.  “What the (expletive) are you doing? This is not (expletive) for you to be messin’ with. Are you ready to hear something? I want you to see if this sounds familiar: any time you try a decent crime, you got fifty ways you’re gonna (expletive) up. If you think of twenty-five of them, then you’re a genius… and you ain’t no genius”.

In the simplest of terms, Rourke was citing the well-known Theory of Unanticipated Consequences.   In 1936, Sociologist Robert Merton wrote “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” in which he discussed how our decisions and actions can and will always result in unintended consequences.  Sometimes these are positive, and sometimes they are negative, but the theory holds that we cannot always know which will occur, and the unanticipated consequences are often well outside our control.  The power of this law has been well recognized by economists and sociologists for decades but curiously, ignored by most of us in the policing profession.


Much has changed since 1936, and it may be high time that we in policing explore this theory with a view to enhancing our decision-making processes.  Can we couple this law with our intelligence led strategies to discover if (and then how) the 75 year old theory of Theory of Unanticipated Consequences can be reconciled with Intelligence Led policing practices?  In today’s world of limited options and resources, we must wring out every ounce of prospective benefit from every choice we make.  There is no cost, no judicial oversight, no legislative authority required and no board approval needed for us to examine our own thought processes.  This might be just the right time to enhance our daily decision making practices and gear them to obtain derivative benefit rather than collateral damage.

Let us first consider some examples of Unanticipated Consequences in action.

In his 2009 book Beyond Fear, author Bruce Shneier illustrates how Merton’s law arose in the midst of a rising car theft problem in Russia.  In response to this rise in car thefts owners began installing vehicle alarms to defeat the criminals. The criminals adapted to this by waiting for the owners to enter their cars and turn off the alarm, at which point they would simply shoot the owners before driving away in their vehicles.  Clearly, this was not the expected outcome the owners had in mind when they installed their alarms.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the massive flood of food, water and supplies into Haiti had the unintended consequence of putting many small businesses in jeopardy.  The local proprietors could no longer sell their supplies to create the sustainable economy they need. “Who would buy it when it is being offered for free?”, they were left to ask.  It turns out the collective relief efforts of the developed world were hampering the Haitian’s economic return. Our noble intentions to assist were adversely affecting the people we wanted to aid.  This was most likely not something most of us had considered as we reached out to help.

But, not all unintended actions result in negative consequences.   Merton himself observed that, “undesired effects aren’t necessarily undesirable effects”.

The end of WW1 saw the US government selling off a fleet of obsolete slow and leaky wooden ships to Western Marine. Western Marine subsequently went bankrupt and left hundreds of rotting ship hulls in Mallows Bay off the Potomac River.  What started as a catastrophic embarrassment has now developed into the creation of spectacular ecosystems and is now home to “blue herons, osprey, fish, reptiles and mollusks”.  Similar wildlife sanctuaries have risen from the mine-fields of war torn countries like Serbia. No one predicted that these undesirable situations would produce such desirable consequences.

Merton also observed that the law of unanticipated consequences is “at work always and everywhere.”  Perhaps the most vivid example of this law at work occurred during the weeks and months after 911.

Immediately following that defining event, all of us who work in public safety entered an era of hyper alertness and instituted many protective security measures never before considered.  Our global law enforcement response resulted in increased communication and funding, overhauling of existing anti-terror programs, enhanced information management systems, target hardening of critical infrastructures, increased border and port security and integrating human systems- to name a few.  Many innovative global decisions and actions were made to mitigate potential terrorist threats.

But, interestingly and perhaps unexpectedly, in their 2007 report, authors Johnson and Kingshott discovered that the post 911 measures brought in to increase security at Chicago’s O’Hare airport had the secondary outcome of reducing larceny and motor vehicle theft at Chicago’s (and other) US airports.

In Ontario’s Waterloo Region, a similar trend was observed.  During this same time period, the Waterloo Regional Police Service was involved in two drug investigations. One project targeted high level traffickers and another focused on street level dealers. Officers had been covertly purchasing narcotics from various street and upper level traffickers on a regular basis.  The police soon felt the might of Merton’s Law.  Within days of 911, they saw the drug supply dry up.  The traffickers suddenly told undercover officers that drugs were no longer available.  Dealers could not supply the police service’s own operatives, and by all accounts, there was little of anything available in the region.  The town was dry, and either no one was willing to move their supply of narcotics, or they simply could not get any supply to sell.

Our collective response to the terror issue was now resulting in the unanticipated consequence of reducing the region’s drug problem. A great benefit for the community to be sure, but it was not something the police there specifically intended when their initial intent was to combat the rising threat of terrorism.

This reality should come as no surprise to experienced law enforcement professionals.  Most of us have seen how targeting a crack house can obtain spin-off benefits of reducing neighborhood prostitution and property crimes.

We have all witnessed the cascading effects of interdependency as it relates to law enforcement and life in the new millennium. Our social connections are closer, communication is instant and we have watched our world get much smaller.

This certainly begs the question, if we can seriously impact the drug trade with our post 911 terrorism response, is there anything we can do to tip the scales in our favour so our everyday decisions will result in more positive outcomes than negative ones? Can we extrapolate Merton’s theory and partner it with our own Intelligence led practices to leverage a law previously thought to be out of our control?

Can we use the power of “cumulative advantage” to re-align our decision making approach to gain the accumulated benefit and reap the compound rewards of our experiences and successes?

Merton asserted that the interplay of forces and circumstances when making a decision are so complex and numerous that prediction of them is beyond our reach.

Really? Beyond our reach?

Police in general seem to be so fixed on managing risk to prevent organizational damage that we rarely consider pursuing ancillary benefit.   We consider an absence of legal actions a success.  We talk about justified shootings, a successful conviction or defeating a law suit and that seems to be “good enough” for us.

It might well appear that everyone has thrown in the collective towel on attempting to control this law.  After all, taken on its own, Merton’s Law does seem to agree that we are merely to let destiny create our history for us.

But, it is highly unlikely Merton ever encountered the term Intelligence Led Policing or even considered the capacity of the current information gathering processes and decision making strategies that Police employ today.

Consider, what was it about our post 911 responses that lead to so many unanticipated benefits?   What elements of our decision-making process differed from the past?  We had been in a “War against Drugs” for decades, yet our terrorism response was arguably more effective than a previous multitude of drug strategies and enforcement tactics.  How did we achieve this unintended success and, more importantly, is it possible to engineer a system to re-produce it? Apparently, we did it before.  Can we replicate those unanticipated post-911 outcomes?

The answers may be found within our own decision making approaches.

What changed to bring them about?

The post-911 period saw a quickly assembled network of law enforcement, customs, border patrol, community and military working hand in hand with worldwide intelligence networks.  For a short time, it was “us against them. “ We fumed watching terrorist sympathizers cheer as the Twin Towers fell.  We were motivated and driven to ensure cooperative working relationships.  Old biases and poor working relationships were quickly forgotten as we suddenly woke to the emerging need.  We enhanced our existing partnerships and forged new ones.  Suddenly our fellow Emergency Services partners were more important than ever and we began to understand each others roles and challenges.  Our partnerships and regular meetings enhanced our mutual understanding and we quickly developed a “who else needs to know “ approach to sharing our acquired data and our analyzed intelligence.  Joint Intelligence Groups (JIG’s) were formed and we worked closely with our law enforcement partners.

The sharing of information was unprecedented, and for a short time community safety trumped every legislative communication-sharing barrier we had previously encountered.

Intelligence Branches that were once resource-neglected became supplemented with new staffing and technology.  Hate crime also became a priority issue, and teams such as the Waterloo Regional Police-led Hate Crime and Extremism Investigative Team  (HCEIT) was formalized, received funding and grew rapidly.   Community members came forward and delivered like no other Neighborhood Policing Program we could envision.  Our phone lines lit up with calls about suspicious activity as our communities kept a keen eye on each other and suddenly threw unwavering support behind law enforcement.  Borders tightened, criminal profiling proliferated and we saw the introduction of air marshals and enhanced aviation security as well as anti-terror legislation.  Virtually every media outlet had extensive terrorism coverage, which created mass awareness of the issues surrounding terrorism.  Specific Terrorism-related training was made available to police services. It became very clear to all concerned that we needed to expand our decision making process to include the “unthinkable”.

Our need to ensure public safety thrust the law enforcement collective into new partnerships, programs, enhanced technology, awareness, training, enhanced information sharing, funding and many spin off initiatives all driven by a common goal towards public safety, steered by an underlying motivation that we will pay whatever cost is needed to ensure this terror won’t be repeated.

Today, our resources are once again short, and money is tight.  We need every break to do the job we are sworn to do, and we must seize every opportunity and leverage every possible opportunity to forge the benefits to our communities.

In Body Heat, Hurt’s character was eventually convicted and incarcerated when his lover turned the tables on him.  Just as he had been warned, his character obviously could not even conceive of the 25 ways he could, and ultimately would get caught.  Like so many of the criminals we encounter, his intention to get rich unexpectedly landed him in jail.  Merton could have warned him many years before Mickey Rourke did.

Merton left us with an idea.  He has documented a theory that, when combined with and factored into our modern tactics and strategies, might just give police that extra edge to locate and harness the unanticipated benefits that may lurk within our decision making processes.

This article is intentionally more anecdotal than research based.  It asks more questions than it answers.  But, it is offered as a jumping-off point for a deeper exploration of new potential, and it hopefully begins a search for a more strategic, inclusive, and intelligence led decision-making process.

As Levitt and Dubner aptly stated in their 2009 Super Freakonomics, “Many of our findings may not be all that useful or even conclusive.  But that’s all right.  We are trying to start a conversation, not have the last word.”

Similarly, our conversation should start with an awareness of what is possible.

Our post 911 response proved the benefits of changing our tactics and employing alternative measures, by enhancing our decision-making processes, and by fully understanding the value of our community and law enforcement partners.

We did it before.  We proved it works.  We also proved that when motivated, we have the capacity for incredible ingenuity, resourcefulness and a desire to work together for the benefit our communities.  Organized criminals and terrorists appear to be up for just about any challenge.  The question we need to continually ask in policing:  Are we?

Superintendent Gary Askin is a 32 year member of the Waterloo RegionalPolice Service in charge of Intelligence, Drugs and Tactical Operations.

3 responses to “Breaking the Law of Unintended Consequences

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