Improving Decision-Making Skills Now

Today, American law enforcement is caught in a contradiction similar to the opening line of Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cites: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” As far as our equipment, training and capability to do good work, it is indeed the best of times. In many ways however, it is also the worst environment for cops I have ever seen. The issues are diverse and extremely difficult to grasp, let alone resolve. But one key component that may help change this toxic atmosphere would be an improvement in our decision-making.

We are not talking about a choice conundrum such as the “Would you like fries with that?” dialog. The law enforcement focus should be on critical decision-making that affects careers and families, lives and communities, professions and professionals.

Growing up, I sometimes wished I had super powers. (I won’t share specifics, but they would have focused on success with sports and girls.) If granted now, such clout would be considerably more mature: I would give all police officers—including trainers—enhanced, powerful and consistently accurate split-second cognitive reasoning. The need to improve is clearly upon us. Just about the only thing that is black and white in “copland” these days is the cars we drive. Most everything else cries out for good decision-making.


Decisions, Decisions

It does not matter if it is on an individual basis, at a unit level or even coming from the chief’s office, police decision-making is pretty darn important in today’s world. On a constant basis, the sheer number of good choices made by cops reflects this. The media however, thrives on the negative. Sit in front of the tube and this theme will come at you in vivid 1080p, HD video. Regrettably, it is too often in an adverse context that’s even influenced by unfair anti-cop bias. Some quickly judge us as guilty before we are afforded the opportunity to present a legally guaranteed defense. But we also have to be honest: Law enforcement “owns” part of the current worst times due to bad—sometimes terrible—decisions.

Between the Ears

Clearly, cops in today’s difficult environment can serve the department and the profession well by raising their own decision-making capabilities. A good starting point comes from Marine Corps General James Mattis: “The most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears.” This advice is equally true in police work.

But what are the parameters of good decision making? At some point you developed internal guidelines thanks to your role models. For me, these included my mom and my dad. As a cop, other good folks have had a similar impact. Among them are tactical thinkers like Ron McCarthy, (LAPD SWAT, ret.) and Sid Heal (LASD, ret.) who have been influential to the max in my career and now this article.

So here are six parameters that may help. As a police officer—beat cop, supervisor and up to the top ranks—considers a course of action, a suggested mental check list would start by asking, “Is what I am about to do …

Tactically Sound?

This should be a basic component of risk analysis and decision-making. A quote I picked up from Randy Watt (Assistant Chief, Ogden, Utah. P.D., ret.) helps: “We will risk our subordinates’ lives only when necessary and only in a calculated manner.” As much as possible, the disadvantages—not just the perceived advantages—of a tactical option should be closely evaluated. (To be clear, we are not just talking about SWAT operations when we use the word “tactical.” In essence, police work employs tactics daily at many levels beyond just the Special Weapons and Testosterone folks.)

Additionally, the effect that emotion may have on decision-making has to be closely controlled. If not, if we get pissed, we lose perspective and orientation. Such sentiment-based reaction can lead to severe consequences. Experience, training and logic should be at the forefront to ensure an issue is tactically sound. For instance, it is clear that a surround and call out option rather than dynamic entry could be the best choice when analysis does not justify putting officers’ lives in jeopardy with the latter tactic.

Make Common Sense?

Unfortunately, in our work as well as with human nature in general, common sense is not always common. For a 21st century cop, this capability must be cultivated and maintained. Encouraging and rewarding good common sense is important. It sets a standard for individual and collective behaviors that may go well beyond the moment. Common sense tells us that a nighttime traffic stop is safer if we can see into the car. Thus, flooding its passenger area with illumination prior to approaching is a good option. Canceling a vehicular pursuit when the safety of the innocent folks in its path—as well as your life—is severely jeopardized is another example. When necessary, the brain should activate the “knock that sh-t off” command to ensure common sense compliance.

Ethical and Moral?

The contemplated decision should be in agreement with ethics and morals. Incorporated into this is the requirement for honesty in what we do. These may be universally understood but their application by law enforcement should reflect a true commitment. Consider the following scenario: Officers shoot an individual who says he has a handgun. In the process, a police dog is hit by friendly fire. Moments later, the department’s helicopter lands. The dog is flown to a veterinary hospital for emergency care but later dies. Meanwhile, the suspect is still alive but with 20 gunshot wounds, his life is also reaching its terminal point. No helicopter for him. Soon he is dead as well. Trying to save the K-9 is fine, but when a dog’s life gets a higher priority than that of a human being, something has gone wrong with the decision-making process. This true event does not comply with the ethics or morals of a police professional.


It’s the mandate that comes with the job: A decision must be within the law. If for example, the legal standard is that absent immediacy and exigency, we give a warning prior to using force, then officers should do just that. In your mind, play another real scenario captured by a citizen’s video: A cop shooting a fleeing, unarmed, non-threatening suspect in the back and then apparently dropping a Taser nearby to create an after-the-fact justification. This is just not lawful within any code or case law.

Within Policy?

Policy guidelines are a parallel decision-making determinant with legal concerns. They spell out what conduct the agency expects. For example, the department’s policy states that officers will treat the public with respect reflecting the age-old Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Absent a very good explanation, the decision by an officer to violate policy could lead to an adverse career moment with the chief.


In 1989, the black robed, ultimate decision making legal guys in Washington, D.C., told American law enforcement that use of force should be reasonable. In case you have been on an extended visit to another planet, this constitutionally-based criteria has expanded since then. Therefore, the reasonableness concept should be a factor when choosing a course of action. Example: It may be reasonable for officers to handcuff people inside a search warrant location. It may be unreasonable however, to keep them so detained for extended periods, especially when they pose no threat. The legal bottom line: There’s a strong chance a jury will be instructed to decide whether or not your decision was reasonable. It is a very smart move for cops to apply such an analysis long before those 12 folks are told to decide.

Some Final Thoughts

In his book Blink, Malcom Gladwell recounts two relevant police decision-making incidents. First, the 1999 Amadou Diallo shooting. In the darkness of a high crime New York neighborhood, cops thought Diallo was reaching for a gun. He was not, but I can understand to a degree their fear. At the end of it all, 19 shots entered his body, ending his life. The aftermath was not limited to just that night: An unarmed man killed by police, explosive news coverage, officers prosecuted but acquitted under the reasonableness doctrine, a big pile of cash paid to settle and an extremely negative community environment results. (Sound familiar?) In contrast, Gladwell also recounts an officer’s confrontation with a teenage gangster. The kid starts to dig into his waistband. The officer gives commands without compliance. He focuses on the kid’s hands and face. It’s an extremely tense moment that perhaps you have experienced as well. This experienced cop decides to temporarily hold fire, watching as the handgun comes farther and farther out of the pants. With trigger pressure probably just shy of fatal, the cop sees something in the youth that tells him “don’t do it until the last possible moment.” Nanoseconds after this, the barrel of the gun is still pointing down as the kid drops it to the ground. Take a deep breath and think. Would it have been reasonable to use lethal force? Yes. Did this scenario end better because of the officer’s decision? Yes again.

The critical element in this street scenario is the officer’s ability to absorb what is happening, apply rapid analysis and commit to a series of decisions that surely would have included lethal force had that gun moved in a different direction. I am good with that. The reasonableness doctrine would certainly have applied had the officer fired. But not shooting moved all of us just a little farther forward within the context of accurate split second cognitive reasoning during such critical moments. Perhaps you have done the same. As a profession, we need more of this mental accuracy, including before a trigger finger starts its reward movement.

A quote from Albert Einstein fits into this overall conversation: “Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.” I think you will agree that even though the majority of cops do their job correctly, police work will always need better decision-making. A law enforcement trainer has a unique role to play in this critical area. The above guidelines are intended to provide suggestions and support. Hopefully, they will assist cops willing to consider them for use as part of this mental process. Developing your own decision-making criteria will make police work a lot less complicated, and a doubling effect will come from this effort. Good results and less negatives in the eyes of the community and the media would be a terrific payoff. I hope you recognize that my intent here is not to preach or be prudish. Instead, I just want American law enforcement out there doing righteous work based on good sound decision making. Train safe. God bless America.

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