Force decision-making

By Dr. Laura Zimmerman

Reprinted from the ILEETA Use of Force Journal

Training that mimics real-life by using simulations contributes greatly to effective officer performance. However, computer simulations are expensive and do not always suit user’s needs while live simulations are time and resource intensive, making them impractical for use on a wide scale. A practical alternative to these high-fidelity simulation training methods, are low-fidelity paper-and-pencil exercises called Decision Making Exercises (DMXs). DMXs are short scenarios presented to students, usually along with a map or other graphic representation of the scene. During DMX training, students read the scenario and then have limited time to write out how they would respond and justify their answer. The instructor then guides a critical review and discussion. The purpose of DMXs is to train decision makers to identify the critical decisions made during events, the important features of the situation, and the difficulties associated with the critical decisions.

The focus of DMXs is on training cognitive skills rather than tactical and procedural skills. Because trainees read and discuss the scenarios in classroom environments, trainees can focus on interpreting the situation and deliberate on the various decisions that may/may not lead to successful outcomes. Although the focus of this training is on situation assessment and decision making challenges, it is also useful to ask trainees to discuss appropriate use-of-force levels at various point in the scenario, or discuss the pros/cons of possible strategic and tactical maneuvers.

Researchers and military trainers first developed DMXs for the Marines to train frontline squad leaders to make decisions without guidance from their supervisors. DMXs are a variation of Tactical Decision Games, which are widely used to train U.S. troops to make complex tactical decisions in battle situations (Schmitt, 1996). While Tactical Decision Games are useful, these exercises do not address tough cognitive challenges, such as recognizing danger signs, questioning assumptions, seeking and sorting relevant information, and dealing with uncertainty and conflicting/changing goals. DMXs focus on these and the other cognitive challenges faced in high-stakes, fast-paced, tactical environments.

In simple terms, DMX scenarios are the beginning of a good story, complete with background information, a setting, and the build up to some type of necessary action. These short stories (1-2 pages) should be engaging, complex, contain ambiguity and missing information, and should present an immediate problem that allows for more than one acceptable solution. Here is a partial example of a DMX:

You are on patrol when you hear your old longtime partner, Steve, on the radio stating he is checking out suspicious activity at Shady’s Trucking Company. You decide to drive by the location and offer assistance. You know this trucking company has been under federal investigation but you have never been to that location. When you arrive, you see the back end of Steve’s patrol car sticking out of the Shady’s Trucking driveway. This driveway opens into a medium-sized parking lot. At the other end of the parking lot is the company’s loading-dock. Surrounding the driveway is a tall wooden fence with small openings you can see through.

You and your rookie partner park on the street and walk toward Steve’s car. You glance though the fence and see Steve with his hands up, gun still holstered. Behind Steve is a man holding a gun to his back. In front of Steve, is another man having a verbal exchange with Steve. You see an armed man on the loading dock and two other men loading boxes onto the back of a large pickup truck. Sitting in the front of the truck, you see a woman with a school-aged child sitting on her lap, they look frightened but you cannot tell if they are friendly or hostile.

You signal for your partner to stop behind the fence. It is obvious none of the men saw you, but the woman in the truck did see you. She has made no movement to signal your presence. As you contemplate what to do, you notice that the conversation between Steve and his captor is heating up. At the same time, you notice a truck with the Shady’s Trucking logo on it turning the corner toward the trucking company. In a time limit of 3 minutes, determine what course of action you will take and justify your decision.

It is vital that scenario contain more than one acceptable course of action. There should be no perfect solution, instead most solutions should have a mixture of pros and cons, requiring the trainees to weigh these factors and consider consequences. Many subtle factors and critical decisions should be present throughout the scenario, rather than one incident-ending decision. In real-life, critical decisions are made before the action starts and while the situation unfolds. Scenarios should contain important (and frivolous) cues that allow trainees to do things such as spot early signs of problems, adjust their approach to situation, gather resources, plan cover and escape routes, etc. In addition, trainees should not have a clear picture of the situation. Officers enter real situations with a great deal of uncertainty and do not have access to important information as they handle situations. A characteristic of expert decision makers is their ability to handle uncertainty. When DMXs contain ambiguity, trainees have the opportunity to recognize missing information, interpret ambiguity, and develop strategies to work effectively in the face of uncertainty.

Trainees will not learn from DMX scenarios unless they discuss their solutions and analyze their action choices. The goal of group discussions is to change the way trainees think by making explicit the subtle judgments and assumptions they make during incidents, the patterns they noticed/don’t notice in situations, and identify the early alarm bells that went of (or should have gone off) as the scenario unfolded. Instructors should guide trainees to reflect on what went well and not so well, to verbalize their thought processes, and to learn from one another. Instructors should ask questions that identify and break down tough decisions, generate group discussion, and capture lessons learned. Questions should be open-ended, allow the trainees to think through their solutions, and elicit constructive discussion. Some questions might be:

• Why was this situation difficult?
• What factors led you to choose that course of action?
• What cues (indicators, factors, information) were you paying attention to?
• What one piece of missing information would have helped you the most?
• What other actions did you consider? Why did you rule them out?
• What were your advantages/disadvantages compared to the suspect/perpetrator?
• When in the scenario did your assessment of the situation change <

Instructors should draw out the reasoning behind trainee’s actions, have them explain why they considered specific pieces of information important and present “what-if” alternative scenarios to further stretch their analyses of the situation. This discussion provides trainees with opportunity to verbalize the reasons for their actions and identify factors that played into their decisions.

Officers do not have time in the field, or even in live simulations, to stop and consider alternative actions or to consider anomalies, ambiguous information, or possible outcomes. DMXs allow instructors to “slow down the action” and teach officers how to process information, recognize important situational factors, and make effective decisions. Because this is a low-fidelity training tool, as opposed to more complex and expensive computer-based training or live simulation training, scenarios are easily adapted to multiple environments and can be used to train officers at all levels of experience.

About the Author

Laura A. Zimmerman, Ph.D. is a Senior Scientist at Applied Research Associates, specializing in critical incident decision-making issues. Her background is in experimental psychology, with focus on police procedures and training. She is a TCLEOSE certified instructor, and is devoted to researching policing issues and developing cognitively relevant training and technology for law enforcement and other first responder communities.


As an organization, ILEETA is committed to the reduction of law enforcement risk through the enhancement of training for criminal justice practitioners. ILEETA members are fully committed to the saving of lives through the development and delivery of high quality training. Further, as training and education professionals, ILEETA members are committed to the safety and security of their fellow citizens, and the furtherance of understanding between society and the criminal justice professions. For more information or to join, visit the ILEETA Web site.

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