During a recent Below 100 presentation in Boca Raton, Fla., I witnessed a classic example of readiness. More than 70 officers from more than a dozen agencies were in attendance when several Boca Raton officers suddenly jumped to their feet and left the room in response to an active shooter call. The officers, including Chief Dan Alexander, were fully suited up, including their body armor, when the call came—even though they were sitting in a training class.
It was a sobering reminder to everyone that we don’t get to choose when bad things happen. They find us on their terms.
Rationalization Leads to Complacency
That afternoon, we worked through Below 100 instructor development with about 35 veteran trainers. We asked where they saw the greatest challenge within their agency. A surprising number expressed serious concerns about complacency. Some said their agencies were very small and officers assumed nothing would happen. Others said that they had several officers who had come from long careers with busy agencies and now seemed to be in quasi-retirement mode. One very tenured command level officer from a large school police department said that his officers didn’t sufficiently understand how suddenly dangerous their environment could become. The more complacency came up, the more others in the room acknowledged they had very similar concerns.
The day after this class, I received an email from one of my favorite people and one of the most popular trainers in the country, Gordon Graham. Although he seldom needs an introduction, I’ll simply say that Graham knows more about risk mitigation and common sense officer safety than virtually anyone else on the planet.
His email was prompted by the recent surge in attacks on public safety officials, including Colorado Corrections Director Tom Clements and the murder of a district attorney and his wife at their home in Texas. Graham alluded to a book entitled Predictable Surprises and written by professors Max Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins.
The book’s premise is that disasters (like 9/11) are preceded by clear warning signals that leaders ignore, miss or fail to take action on. Graham espoused the opinion (and I strongly agree) that these and other events are signs that shouldn’t be ignored or rationalized away. Using the book’s analysis of 9/11 as a guide, here’s the thought process that results in complacency, even when we see warning signs.
- It will not happen again;
- If it does happen, it won’t happen here;
- If it happens here, it won’t be a big deal;
- If it ends up being a big deal, it won’t negatively impact me; and
- If it ends up being a big deal that negatively impacts me, there’s nothing I could have done to prevent it.
As a result of Below 100, I have become acutely aware of just how many times we engage in this dangerous rationalization that leads to inaction and outright complacency. We’ve lost way too many officers in situations where they assumed it wouldn’t happen or would happen to someone else. Even in agencies that have had tragedies, the passage of time often results in reverting to the previous behavior. Perhaps the biggest problem: Some in leadership positions stand in the way of preventative or proactive measures by invoking phrases like, “It hasn’t happened in 20 years, so it’s not a problem.”
In a job that is largely made up of responding to things that have already occurred, it’s way too easy to succumb to a pattern of passivity. Bottom line: You can’t allow yourself to fall into this trap because it never ends well. The best you can hope for is handing off your lack of action to someone else as you slide out the door. But that’s outright negligent. You owe it to those who look to you to learn from the past, monitor the present and proactively engage the future.
During Below 100 training, we always ask for words to describe the opposite of complacency. The most frequent response by far is the word “vigilant.” And that’s the best way to sum up the attitude that must be embraced, regardless of your position in your agency.
If others let their guard down, challenge them with a courageous conversation. If those above you aren’t supportive, do what you can within your area of responsibility and be an example for others. Study what’s going on, watch for pre-event indicators, make sure you and your people are ready and, as the old saying goes, keep your powder dry—you might need it.