Bias, Byford and the Hunt for the Ripper
Between 1975 and 1980, serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, known as the Yorkshire Ripper, murdered 13 women and seriously assaulted another eight. However, these numbers are not definitive. Recently, BBC FOUR’s documentary series The Yorkshire Ripper Files: a Very British Crime Story has cast new light on both the terrible crimes and the failure of West Yorkshire Police to catch Sutcliffe. Directed by Liza Williams and produced by Nancy Bornat and Leanne Klein, the film paints a vivid portrait of the sexism and discrimination that was prevalent in British society of the 1970s. Tragically, prejudice and misogyny would cloud the thinking of senior officers and obstruct the investigation from start to finish. However, like all good documentaries, it got me thinking about why we see similar management failures and poor decision-making within many organisations.
Following Sutcliffe’s capture, Sir Lawrence Byford conducted an inquiry into the Ripper case and found detectives made serious errors of judgement during the inquiry. The Byford report led to many changes to investigative procedures that were adopted by police services across the UK. A redacted copy of the Byford report is freely available to anyone who wants to read it. The report is a shocking catalogue of missed opportunities, incompetence and mismanagement that left Sutcliffe free to kill. However, the document is also instructive for any complex organisation. As we will see, many of the issues and challenges that plagued the Ripper investigation are all too familiar in business.
The hunt for the Ripper was the biggest police investigation in British history. As Assistant Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, George Oldfield led the investigation assisted by Detective Chief Superintendent James Hobson and others. Chief Constable Ronald Gregory was in overall charge of the case. Unfortunately, this group of senior officers came straight out of central casting for archetypal “old-fashioned British coppers” of the 1970s. They were arrogant, autocratic, casually sexist and racist in their attitudes. Their myopic, linear thinking prompted them to make many false assumptions about the case and the man they were looking for. Their lack of leadership, management skill and organisational ability hampered the enquiry at every turn.
Tragically, the senior investigating officers on the Ripper case made some misguided assumptions about the killer and jumped to all the wrong conclusions. They believed the killer to be a visionary or missionary killer. This is someone driven to kill a particular group, class, race or gender. In the Ripper case, they believed the perpetrator was driven to kill prostitutes. In fact, he was a hedonistic killer or sexual psychopath. This is someone driven to kill for sexual gratification. Sutcliffe had committed a number of serious assaults against women as he progressed towards his first murder in the series, but the police missed this fact. He then refined his modus operandi (method of operation), targeting prostitutes simply because they were extremely vulnerable and easily available. Later, when a heavy police presence largely denied the red light districts of Leeds, Bradford and Manchester to Sutcliffe, he started to target female students and University halls of residence. In truth, any lone women who happened to cross Sutcliffe’s path was a potential victim.
In hindsight, it is easy to point the finger of blame at the Ripper investigation for its many failings. However, the uncomfortable truth is that we are all subject to the same cognitive bias and poor decision-making. Humans make bad decisions based on poor information all the time. As Daniel Kahneman explains in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, our brains are essentially lazy, quick to take shortcuts and make baseless assumptions. We use mental models to help us understand the world and predict the future. But our models are woefully inadequate, simplifications of reality.
In the case of the Ripper squad, it’s clear that a number of cognitive bias were at work simultaneously. These included perception bias, confirmation bias, action-oriented bias and groupthink. Anyone who has worked within a large organisation will have first-hand experience of one or more of these biases. Perception bias is a tendency to form stereotypes and make assumptions about certain groups. Confirmation bias is the inclination to only believe information that reinforces pre-existing beliefs and ignore evidence to the contrary. Action-oriented bias makes us feel pressured to take action. It creates over-confidence and a misguided belief in our ability to effect the world around us. Finally, groupthink is an urge for people to conform to group norms and discourage dissent. Unfortunately, the result is often irrational or dysfunctional decision-making.
Prepared to Fail
Three elements significantly contributed to the overall failure of the Ripper investigation. First, the Major Incident Room was quickly overwhelmed. Next, a number of serious assaults against lone women committed by Sutcliffe were omitted from the inquiry. Finally, far too much credence was given to the so-called Sunderland letters and tape.
Major Incident Room
In a time before computerisation, The Major Incident Room of the Ripper inquiry relied on a card index system that was never designed for the scale of the task. The Byford report explains: “The Major Incident Room was persistently overwhelmed by workloads without commensurate staffing levels. Instead of being the nerve centre of the most important detective effort in history it frustrated the work of senior investigating officers and junior detectives alike.” In fact, Sutcliffe had been interviewed 11 times during the inquiry. He should have been identified as a prime suspect. Instead, he remained free to kill. A lack of standardised procedures, inadequate staffing and the use of untrained officers on crucial tasks led to this systemic failure.
We now know that Sutcliffe committed at least 12 serious assaults against lone women between 1969 and his arrest in 1981. He attacked three women in the summer of 1975 before killing Wilma McCann in October, his first known victim in the series. All the victims were attacked within a small geographic area between Halifax, Bradford and Leeds. Later, a number of victims would help construct excellent photofit likenesses of their attacker and give detailed descriptions. Nevertheless, police obstinately refused to attribute all these crimes to the same man. Instead, they sought to discredit victims’ testimony that did not comfortably fit with the perceived wisdom of senior investigating officers. Right from the start of the Ripper inquiry, we see the powerful influence of confirmation bias, social harmony bias, groupthink and anchoring bias. This is a tendency to rely too heavily on one piece of information when making decisions. The Ripper squad had determined they were looking for a missionary killer of prostitutes. This was the first of two major mistakes where cognitive bias would pervert the course of the entire investigation. The Byford report explains, “Had senior detectives of West Yorkshire assembled the photofit impressions from surviving victims of all hammer attacks or assaults involving serious head injuries on unaccompanied women, they would have been left with the inescapable conclusion that the man involved was dark haired with a beard and moustache, but he did not have a “Geordie” accent.”
The Sunderland Hoax
Between March 1978 and June 1979 West Yorkshire Police received two anonymous letters and a tape recording claiming to be from the Ripper. Another letter was sent to the Chief Editor of the Daily Mirror newspaper. It would later transpire that these letters and tape were a hoax. Nevertheless, Assistant Chief Constable, George Oldfield was convinced they were genuine. Senior investigating officers immediately quashed any questions and concerns raised about the authenticity of the letters and tape. Huge resources were diverted away from more promising lines of inquiry. A huge media campaign helped condition both the police and public to believe the communications were from the killer, a native of Sunderland. In response to the campaign, the public innocently flooded the Major Incident Room with false leads that had to be checked. Disastrously, the letters and tape were also used to eliminate suspects from the inquiry.
Clearly, George Oldfield was incapable of admitting to himself or anyone else that the investigation was failing and he was out of his depth. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. This is where someone’s view of themselves and the realities of a situation conflict or contradict one another. Instead, he pounced on the Sunderland letters and tape as the breakthrough the inquiry needed. Confirmation bias explains why he obstinately refused to consider the likelihood of the letters and tape being a hoax. Social harmony bias or groupthink had already taken hold within the Ripper squad, which meant that subordinate officers simply fell into line rather than dissent.
Finally, we see the sunk-cost fallacy at work. This is a human behaviour pattern where individuals or groups continue to invest time, money and resources in a course of action regardless of the negative outcomes. More simply, it’s throwing good money after bad. The Byford report explains, “Having committed resources and a massive publicity campaign, the dye was well and truly cast. It would have been an almost impossible task to reverse the decision.” Byford goes on to highlight the tragic consequences of these decisions. “Even with the problems of the Major Incident Room, Sutcliffe might still have been arrested, but the letters and tape were used to eliminate him as a suspect.”
Byford and Lessons Learned
West Yorkshire Police took a very parochial approach to their handling of the Ripper inquiry. They failed to share information and work cooperatively with other police services such as Greater Manchester. The entire investigation was dominated by the personality of George Oldfield. Unfortunately, he was appointed largely on seniority. He lacked many of the leadership, organisational and managerial skills required to run such a complex investigation. However, Oldfield was not alone in these failings. Byford explains, “There was a dearth of senior detectives with the overall management skills to meet the demands of the inquiry.” He goes onto say that, senior officers “lacked the flexibility of mind required to remedy system failures, such as the Major Incident Room.”
Among the many recommendations in his report, Byford suggests that officers of all ranks receive more management training to better equip them for tackling complex, large-scale inquiries. More attention should be given to the morale and motivation of junior officers performing mundane, repetitive tasks. One senior officer should be appointed to overall control of the inquiry with no other responsibilities.
Byford said that there had been “no proper delegation of responsibilities to subordinate commanders, which led to an overburdening of senior officers with mundane matters.” He went on to say that the temptation to appoint a “senior man” on age or service should be resisted. Instead, the senior commander should be “an officer of sound professional competence who will inspire confidence and loyalty in those who work for them.”
There should be far greater co-ordination of effort between police services, and independent oversight of such inquiries and command responsibility. There ought to be proper adherence to processes and procedures. Each new line of inquiry must be clearly identified, resourced, and “not abandoned prematurely without good reason.” Byford also criticised the culture that developed within the inquiry, where “misplaced loyalties to certain senior officers and jealousies served to undermine overall efficiency.”
To Err is Human
It’s clear that humans as individuals and within groups are particularly good at making bad decisions. We regularly choose to ignore incontrovertible evidence when it conflicts with our ideas, beliefs, prejudices and hunches. Given the choice between speaking up at the risk of being ostracised or staying silent and being accepted, we will choose acceptance almost every time. Luckily, most of our bad decisions have fairly limited consequences. However, our cognitive biases have the potential to wreak havoc within organisations and wider society. That’s why it is so important we have processes and procedures in place to create the necessary checks and balances. Similarly, it’s important that organisations are properly regulated and compliance enforced.
Today, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), big data and predictive analytics hold the promise of better decision-making based on algorithms and cold logic. Police drones, automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) facial recognition software, predictive crime mapping and gunshot detection are just some of the technologies currently deployed by law enforcement across the globe. During the Ripper investigation, data overwhelmed and confounded officers working in the Major Incident Room. In the United States, machine learning is helping law enforcement make connections human investigators might never see and detect serial crimes committed by the same individual.
Durham police recently experimented with a predictive policing system called Hart (Harm Assessment Risk Tool), which classified known offenders by their likelihood of re-offending within a two-year period. The system had an impressive success rate. However, the experiment also revealed that human bias can be written into the very software itself. Systems like HART have been found to identify twice as many offenders from minority backgrounds as being “high risk” than whites.
Humans are illogical, inconsistent and fallible. Perhaps it is a good thing that we will have to accept artificial intelligence can often make better decisions than we can, and they might run our organisations with far greater efficiency, productivity and economy. In the meantime, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the confidence we have in our supreme ability to understand the world and make the right choices is mostly illusory.
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