LOCAL NEWS

THE GIBSON TRAGEDY – Hard Truths

PHOTO JGJ
PHOTO JGJ

There are many hard truths in Policing.

One of the hardest truths Police Officers face is the fact there are some things we simply can’t change.

Working on the front lines of Policing has never been a more dangerous, difficult or challenging job.  Responding to 911 calls is a task that places Patrol Officers in the center of everything from grisly Homicide scenes to horrific traffic accidents to mundane attendance to seemingly endless false burglar alarms.

When you arrive at one of these calls, you never know what’s waiting for you when you step out of that cruiser car.

The call to the Gibson residence on July 24, 2013 at 8:00 am was one of those calls.

Just another 911 hang up call during the early morning rush hour.

Police Officers in Winnipeg respond to dozens of these kinds of calls every month.  A 911 hang up call is something Officers know they have to take serious.  They could be walking into a highly volatile Domestic Assault where an abusive husband just ripped the telephone out of his battered wife’s hands or it could be something as innocuous as a neighbourhood dispute.

The truth is, a great many of these calls end up being false alarms.  When you arrive at the home the astonished parents are normally mortified and unable to provide any explanation as to the origin of the call.  More often than not, the culprit ends up being a child playing with the telephone.

Much has been written about the fact the Gibson children were found in the bathtub by the children’s grandmother and not by the Police who responded to the 911 call.  It’s been widely reported the Officers were on scene for as much as thirty (30) minutes before the children were discovered.

Reporters now speculate regarding a number of “what if” scenarios.  Scenarios like, “What if the Police had found the children sooner?”  “Is it possible the children might have been saved if the Police would have located them when they arrived at the scene?”

It doesn’t take much intuition to comprehend the emotional impact these suggestions might have on the Police Officers who took that call.  The second guessing, the self-doubt and the guilt infecting their minds as they replay the event over and over and over again.

I know the feeling.  I suffered with these toxic thoughts in the aftermath of a kidnapping and murder of a two (2) year old baby boy.  Could I have done something different to save that child’s life?  That question bounced around inside of my mind for an eternity.

In this case, I was encouraged when a high-ranking WPS Officer reached out to me and expressed his concern for the Officers emotional well-being.  “I feel for the two officers, attending to a routine call with no information that 99,999 time out of 100,000 would have been a child playing with a phone,” he said.  “They weren’t looking for two children in a bathtub, they were conducting a cursory search looking for anyone in the house to explain the 911 call,” he continued.

“It sickens me that the armchair quarterbacks are attacking the officers when they tried to do the best they could under the circumstances,” he stressed.

I understand his frustration and he has my respect for genuinely caring for the well-being of the involved Officers.  On the other hand, I hesitate to criticize members of the press for making demands for a timeline regarding the Police response to the tragic incident.  Good crime reporters look for the story within the story and I understand their interest in this angle.

One thing I can assure them, the timeline in this case will never be able to provide conclusive answers to the “what if” questions they pose.

In order to resolve the “what if” questions we have to have an understanding of the torments experienced by women who suffer from postpartum depression and psychosis.

According to the Postpartum Progress website people suffering from postpartum psychosis may feel as if they are being controlled by some outside force. This force may be telling them to harm someone. Or they may have strange violent urges that have nothing to do with choice. These urges can best be understood if you think of how it feels when you experience the urge to urinate. One has little control over whether one wants to urinate or not, it is just a powerful urge one is compelled to tend to. These strange violent thoughts may present themselves as possible solutions to a myriad of problems.

After investigating hundreds of homicide cases I’ve learned the answer often lies in the most logical common sense analysis of any given scenario.

In this case, common sense pragmatic analysis suggests that a young mother suffering from postpartum depression (psychosis) lost her ability to control the violent urges she was experiencing.  In a moment of rage, two young innocents were lost.  Once the children lay still, I envision a surreal moment of shock, disbelief and resignation.  When reality set in, the distraught young mother picked up the telephone and dialled 911.  It makes perfect sense, these were her beloved children and she had to make sure the authorities would come and care for them now that they were gone.

Shattered by the depths of her psychosis, Lisa Gibson did the only thing she could do that still made sense to her.  After all, how could she possibly go on living.

The answer to the “what if” questions are much less complex than the illness behind these tragic events.

Q “Why did Lisa Gibson call 911?

Q “Why did Lisa Gibson commit suicide?

Once again, common sense pragmatic analysis suggests:

  • Lisa Gibson killed her children as a result of suffering the effects of postpartum psychosis
  • Lisa Gibson called 911 after the children were deceased.
  • Lisa Gibson committed suicide because she was responsible for her children’s death and couldn’t live with herself after committing such a heinous act.

There can be little doubt that the Gibson children were deceased before Lisa Gibson placed the call to 911.  Any other conclusion is inconsistent with the tragic events that followed the 911 call.

(In September of this year, Allyson McConnell committed suicide by jumping off the Brian McGowan Bridge on Australia’s central coast.  McConnell had been convicted of manslaughter in the bathtub drowning deaths of her two young sons.  At the time of her death her sentence was under appeal by the Crown.)

In a world where most people’s understanding of death comes from television shows like Quincy ME and CSI, where the time of death can be factored to within a minute or two, reality is much different.  I doubt any respectable Forensic Pathologist could provide any clarity regarding the children’s time of death.  You don’t have to be a Forensic Pathologist to know it takes mere seconds to kill a child by drowning.

In this case, people will arrive at their own conclusions, some educated, some not so much.

The Officers at the center of the controversy will have to learn how to steel themselves from the sensational headlines and conjecture that’s sure to rage in this case.

They’ll have to learn how avoid the emotionally damaging pitfalls that come with playing the “what if” game.

They’ll have to accept the fact they can’t change the tragic outcome of this horrific event.

They must accept the fact they’re not responsible for the deaths of the Gibson children regardless of who found them in the bathtub or what time they were found.

Lastly, they’ll have to learn to accept the hard truth, that people die sometimes and you can’t always save them.

And that’s one of the hard truths in Policing.

RELATED LINK:

THE POLICE INSIDER – “WPS Inadvertently Adds to Stigma Attached to Mental Illness”

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS – Mike McIntyre “Grandma Found Bodies in Tub”

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS – Gordon Sinclair “Police Slow in Gibson Disclosure”

4 Comments

  1. Good assessment….

    Thanks for commenting.

  2. I noticed that the Free Press in all of their unbiased glory can’t help but attempt to try to point out the “what ifs” of the 911 call and subsequent response.

    These media hounds do not care about anything except their next story.

  3. The hard truths of policing are the hard truths of humanity. All front line service providers deal with them, largely so that members of the larger community don’t have to, or at least not so directly or frequently. All of those pro-social people want to help, and all to often confront situations where they are helpless.

    It takes a great deal of skill to determine what exactly the problem is when help is requested. Sometimes there’s not enough time or information to get it right-which doesn’t mean you got it wrong. You do the best you can with what you’ve got, and that IS the best you (or anyone else) can do. It’s risk management. None of us is assured the best possible outcome every time. Hard truth. And it hurts.

  4. There are two particular phenomena of Human Factors Science that help explain retrospect public condemnation is a situation like this.

    Outcome Bias

    “Outcome bias is an error made in evaluating the quality of a decision when the outcome of that decision is already known. Specifically, the outcome effect occurs when the same “behavior produce[s] more ethical condemnation when it happen[s] to produce bad rather than good outcome, even if the outcome is determined by chance.”

    Hindsight Bias:

    “people who know the outcome of a complex prior history of tangled, indeterminate events, remember that history as being much more determinant, leading ’inevitably’ to the outcome they already knew”

    These are the psychologies that make us judgmental, the reason why we often say that hindsight is ’20/20′. It’s absolutely correct to say that a thousand times on other days, the way the officers conducted themselves would have turned out perfectly well. What would they have suspected would be any different on this day? If indigent patients sleep and occasionally vomit in the waiting room of an emergency department, and you have seen it a thousand times before, with no particular negative consequence, what makes the time it all goes South any different? What makes it different is the retrospect judgments we apply through the lens of outcome and hindsight bias. We need to transition our thinking from ‘WHAT were they thinking? to… what WERE they thinking?’ That way we can begin to create safety in complex systems.

    Another old saying ‘there but for the grace of god…’

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