Given this definition of complexity, it should surprise no-one that our judicial system represent a highly complex system. And just as reductionist approaches sometime fail business managers faced with difficult decisions, so can our legal system fail judges and juries trying to make similarly difficult decisions.
A clear example is the recent verdict in the case surrounding the untimely death of Freddy Gray. Here we have a situation involving six police officers, whose collective actions led to Freddy Gray’s injuries, and eventually, his death.
So far, of the six indicted officers, one was acquitted on grounds of mistrial, and two have been cleared of charges. Let’s leave momentarily aside the issue of whether the law is being applied fairly or unfairly, and focus instead on the complexity of the situation.
There is a fundamental difference between this particular case, and some of the other cases involving the killing of black people: Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and many more tragic deaths. In all these cases the death resulted because of the action of a single person. And in all these cases, the task before the judge and jury is to pass judgment on the behavior of a single person.
In contrast, with Freddy Gray we have multiple elements (six officers), interacting with each other, and with their environment (a van). The “emergent” outcome is the death of an innocent individual. But which of the elements is responsible? How do you assign blame when there wasn’t one particular person who pulled a trigger, or put someone in a chokehold, or physically attacked someone?
The point here is not at all to relieve these officers of the responsibility for their actions. It is simply to point out that even with a small number of people, the emergent outcome cannot be easily attributed to the behavior of any one particular individual. Had Freddy Gray been strapped to a seatbelt, would the outcome have been different? If so, whose responsibility was it to restrain him? What if Ceasar Goodson had driven less aggressively? Would that have really made a difference? How much slower would he have had to drive? What if he had driven the same speed but one of the other officers in the back had simply held Freddy Gray to keep him from rolling around like a broken doll? And what if he hadn’t been arrested in the first place?
Whatever your opinion may be of this case, one thing should be clear: our legal system is not designed to deal with the complexity of situations like this one. Rather, it is designed in a reductionist way: slice and dice every possible circumstance to isolate it to specific situations that are clear cut and unambiguous. Sadly, in cases like this, a clean division of responsibilities is simply impossible.
And even more sadly, it is the mismatch between the complexity of life and the reductionist approach of our legal system that creates the loopholes that allow people to get away with murder, both figuratively and literally.
In an ideal world, our legal system would recognize situations that are inherently complex, and use a different methodology to assign blame. Specifically, there are six people whose collective actions lead to the wrongful death of an individual. Clearly all of them have some responsibility for the outcome, and equally clearly, some are more responsible that the others. We can use an analytic approach more suitable to the study of complex systems to derive an approximate “degree of responsibility” for each individual: for example, we could run a computer simulation to explore a variety of related scenarios to see how the outcome might have changed as each person’s behavior ranged through a reasonable set of possible behaviors. Using a simulation in this way, we could see how much each person’s behavior impacts the final outcome, and then apply a punishment to everyone involved, each at a level commensurate with their degree of responsibility.
This may seem futuristic or even idealistic, but it’s actually well within the realm of possibilities, given recent advances in analytical and simulation tools designed specifically to test these sorts of complex situations: in my work, I regularly apply this methodology to help large organizations deal with problems that are much more complex than this particular legal case.
And anything would be better than the current situation, in which large swaths of the population are left with the sensation that justice is not being served.