Sharing ideas on Risk, Human Performance, Teams and Leaders

Human Error Again?

Published: Mon 01 Apr 2019
There was an excellent 3-part film aired this week on BBC 4 reflecting on the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe.

The West Yorkshire Police appointed Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield to lead the investigation as soon as it was realised that one man had committed several murders in similar fashion.

He was appointed to lead the investigation in 1975 but the killings continued until 1981 when Mr Sutcliffe was apprehended by two police officers who were not even part on the Yorkshire Ripper enquiry team. Subsequent to Mr Sutcliffe’s arrest and confession it transpired that he had been interviewed 9 times during the 6 years of the investigation. Many of his victims would have still been alive if he had been arrested after his first interview.

Team Leaders and Human Error

Assistant Chief Constable Oldfield totally dedicated his life to the investigation, working upwards of 18 hours a day. In fact his commitment took a huge toll on his health and he suffered a heart attack during his time leading the investigation but still returned after his sick leave.

During the film many of the Ripper’s victims who survived were interviewed as were many of Mr Oldfield’s police team. Many of their disclosures were really interesting when thinking about teams leaders and human error. Mr Oldfield served in the Royal Navy before joining the Police and rose through the ranks to his elevated position. It appeared that he was very much ‘his own man’ and found it difficult to reach out to his team or take advice from them. He also seemed to struggle to give credence to statements from victims who had survived or from their relatives, particularly females.


Half way through the killing spree Mr Oldfield received a tape recording and two hand written letters from someone calling himself ‘The Ripper’ The voice on the tape was of a man speaking in a strong Wearside accent. Mr Oldfield believed the tape was genuinely recorded by ‘The Ripper’ and from that moment on he changed the direction of the enquiry and put all the resources and manpower into trying to trace a man from the North East of England. Of course with the benefit of hindsight we can all see that was a tragic mistake. However there were many within Mr Oldfield's team who attempted to highlight the folly of closing down other lines of investigation and only focusing on finding the man who had recorded the tape.

Confirmation Bias

This story highlights what psychologists call ‘Confirmation Bias’ - Confirmation bias is our tendency to cherry-pick information that confirms our existing beliefs or ideas.  It is a bias that often is one of the ingredients in organisational accidents in healthcare and aviation and indeed all safety critical industries.

Many of the talks available to view on this site deal with aspects that were found to be prevalent in the Yorkshire Ripper investigation. Lord Owen talked about Hubris and how power can influence judgement. Chris Allen talked about such factors in the tragedy of Piper Alpha. Of course Martin Bromiley’s talk centers on such human failings during the operation that caused the tragic death of his wife. Many of these issues will be aired during our next Risky Business conference on June 5/6/7

Author: Guy Hirst

Find our more about June’s conference here