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. Continue reading