In Search of the Perfect Investigation: Beware the Perils of Perfectionism


Contributing Author: Wendy L. Patrick, Deputy District Attorney, San Diego County (CA)

We often hear about the “perfect crime.” Is there such thing as the “perfect investigation?” You are probably thinking . . . only on TV, where crimes are committed, investigated, solved, and sentenced in a little under an hour.

Nonetheless, many law enforcement professionals are talented, competent, overachievers. This is a good thing. Unfortunately, however, even the most ambitious, tenacious investigator can solve a case that does not yield the facts necessary to be successfully solved.

Consider the case where witnesses are cooperative, and evidence is collected while it is fresh — producing both fingerprints and DNA. Non-grainy surveillance footage is collected in a timely fashion before it is over-ridden, and a suspect confesses at the station in a friendly interview. Sound familiar? For most law enforcement professionals, the answer is “no.”

Despite the admirable goal of neatly packaging and tying a bow on each investigation, it rarely happens. Most cases involve challenges, both factually and legally. Witnesses are uncooperative. Delayed reporting prevents collecting forensic evidence that would provide evidence of an assault, or assist in suspect identification. And speaking of suspects, many invoke at the scene instead of providing a statement, or in the case of delayed reporting, lawyer-up before they are even approached for questioning.

Evidentiary challenges, however, are the reason that we all work together as a team, in order to share the load of preparing a trial worthy case for the courtroom. Nonetheless, many hard-working, industrious, law enforcement professionals seek to personally tie up every loose end in order to make a case airtight. In order to make it perfect.

Research reveals this worthy goal is a sign of the times.

In Pursuit of Perfectionism

Striving to be the best that we can be is a laudable personality trait. Often linked with ambition and motivation, pursuing perfection often enhances performance. But perfectionism has a downside. This is concerning, because within the younger generation, research reveals that the perfectionist streak is on the rise.

A study by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill (2019) tracked perfectionistic tendencies within college students from America, Great Britain, and Canada from 1989 to 2016. They defined perfectionism as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.”

Within their study sample, Curran and Hill examined increase in three types of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism. Their findings suggest that young people feel like other people demand more of them, and also that they demand more of others, as well as themselves.

Simon Sherry and Martin M. Smith (2019), in a study entitled “Young People Drowning in a Rising Tide of Perfectionism,” outline toxic side effects of pursuing perfectionism.

They studied a sample of approximately 25,000 people, ranging in age from 15 to 49, and concluded that today´s younger generation is more perfectionistic than ever before.

Sherry and Smith observe that the pursuit of perfectionism, which has increased over the last quarter century, impacting both genders equally, is taking its toll. They observe that perfectionists are more likely to experience negative emotions such as anxiety, guilt, and envy. They also note the loss of traits that we consider to be important to law enforcement work, such as reliability, organization skills, and efficiency.

The result? We all know co-workers who suffer from burnout. Perhaps perfectionism is partially to blame. Sherry and Smith note that perfectionists can experience failure-related depression, stress, and even suicide. Curran and Hill document similar research findings in connection with self-oriented perfectionism. Interestingly, they describe socially prescribed perfectionism as even more debilitating, due to the perception of the expectations of others as “excessive, uncontrollable, and unfair, making failure experiences and negative emotional states common.”

Solving The Perfect Crime

The perfect crime does not exist; neither does the perfect investigation. Unrealistic expectations fuel dissatisfaction and discontent. But there is an antidote: the support and encouragement of coworkers, peers, superiors, and others involved in the process. These people can provide protection against the ill effects of chasing the illusion of demanding self-perfection. Validation, and affirmation of a job well done can counteract unrealistic expectations, counteract burnout, and motivate and encourage the continued pursuit of justice that brings us all together as a law enforcement community.

The original version of this article was published in the Fall 2019 Law Enforcement Quarterly.

Pictured Wendy Patrick



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