Tactical decision making: An equation for critical thinking in moments of crisis
By PoliceOne Columnist Ron Avery
How often is legal liability the overwhelming factor in decision making, to the exclusion of situational needs or overall mission?
How often are decisions based on what was done in your most recent training -- or something you read about or did the last time you were in a similar situation, rather than really looking at the situation and figuring out the best way to handle it?
How many decisions are made based on a “tactical recipe” like the 21 foot “rule”?
Every day, officers face myriad situations on the street where they have to make decisions on how to proceed. Subjective terms like “use good judgment” or “common sense” are often used to describe the process of arriving at a successful decision. But what we need is an objective tool to measure success instead of basing actions on subjective standards.
What I am going to share with you is a tactical decision making equation in regards to critical thinking and decision making. Using this equation, you can explain the process of how you arrived at your decision, in lay terms, in any given situation.
Further, this equation can be used at any level of command, from a single individual on the street to a supervisor commanding a whole sector. It can be used for either law enforcement, military or civilian applications.
This equation can be used in a court of law and can be easily understood by a jury. You can break down the different components and lay out the circumstances in an organized fashion.
Good officers with “street smarts” use this equation subconsciously. In times when there is a difference of opinion about how to proceed in a given situation, putting things in a format such as this allows for clarification of key points that make the difference.
The equation is written as follows:
Risk vs. Need ÷ Time + Resources Available = Decision *
This equation is simple to look at. Its effects are profound in application. As you start to use it, you will find that it fits every situation you will come across and will give you a more concise way of evaluating situations in the field. As you gain experience in using it, your critical thinking and decision making skills will become more refined.
You won’t find yourself at a loss for words when you have to explain your actions in the aftermath of a situation. This is important as you recall the incident and have to write a report. You can go by the variables, step by step, and explain what you did and why.
Supervisors and trainers can use this equation to review actions by officers and look at the reasoning behind the decisions in an organized way.
Best of all, you don't have to rely on a subjective standard (e.g., "common sense") or a one-size-fits-all “tactical recipe” to defend your actions.
Let’s review the variables:
What are the risks associated with the various options available to you? Given the nature of the mission, are the risks acceptable and manageable? In general, the default is the lowest risk option that meets the needs of the mission. Liability risks are also part of this area.
What are the needs of the mission/situation that you are in? Why are you there? Is it an arrest, public safety issue, warrant service, military exercise, prisoner snatch, drug raid, etc.? What needs to be accomplished?
Is time on your side or working against you? In general, the shorter the time available to you to accomplish the mission, the higher the risk factors on the available options left.
What resources can you access during the mission/situation with the time available to you?
Needs of the mission, available options, associated risks, resources available in the time constraints and is time working for you or against you?
Using the equation:
Building search. Possibly armed subject in structure.
You have been tasked with performing a building search in response to an alarm. As you pull up to the scene, let’s pause for a moment and look at the needs of this mission.
Search, detain and arrest unlawful intruders.
Possibly armed subject(s), They have the advantage of cover/concealment and darkness.
With a perimeter secured, time is on your side.
You have a partner, a light, a handgun and a long gun in your car. The police K-9 is not available tonight as the handler is out of town doing training.
You conduct the search, with your partner, slicing the pie, taking advantage of your light, etc. As you come to a back room, you hear a noise that you suspect is a person.
You and your partner move forward. As you come to the doorway, you see a person standing in the room. You challenge him and he suddenly brings a gun around and fires a shot. You stand your ground and return fire as he fires at you. Neither of you hit the other. He ducks back to a corner of the room. You move back a few feet so he can’t shoot through the wall at you.
Now what do you do?
Let’s look at the equation and go from there.
Risk vs. Need ÷ Time + Resources Available = Decision
Detain and arrest armed felon
Option 1: Leave the building and let someone else deal with it.
Risk: None to the officer. Mission not fulfilled.
Option 2: Retreat to a secure corner with the entry to the room in view. Hold the corner with your partner. Call for SWAT, etc. Offender is contained and isolated in the room. No external window to the outside. If offender comes out of room, you have the advantage of holding the corner with two guns against his one.
Risks: Higher than option one, but meet the needs of the situation.
Option 3: Move to the doorway with your partner. Attempt to take the fight to the subject from the doorway.
Risks: Gunfight at close range. One or both of you may be killed or wounded in the exchange. Risk - Higher than Option 1 or 2.
Option 4: Do a dynamic entry with your partner and take the offender out.
Risks: Very high when you close the distance.
Is on your side at the moment. He is in the room with no exits but the doorway.
Whatever knowledge, skills, training and abilities you and your partner can bring to bear that is relevant to the situation and will help you both manage the risk and accomplish the mission at hand. You have your weapons, ammo, flashlight, radio. Within a few minutes (or possibly up to an hour or more in rural locations) you can have more backup with more equipment.
Time is on your side. If you are a patrol officer doing a search it is helpful to think of yourself as a “scout.” You are there to ascertain presence of a subject and activity, not necessarily engage in a pitched battle. If you find someone, you don’t necessarily have to fight them. Just contain, isolate and use your best option that still accomplishes or furthers the completion of the intended mission. Option 2 offers the lowest risks at this point and will further the mission of containment and ultimate apprehension of the armed felon.
School shooting. Active shooter.
First and foremost: Stop the killing. Additional tasks: Stabilize and evacuate the critically injured, protect, evacuate or control the student population. Control the perimeters. Here we can use the equation from both a command and a control standpoint and from an individual officer point of view.
Option 1: Contain the perimeter. Wait out the subjects.
Risks: Lowest to officers but not to students. Does not meet the needs of the situation.
Option 2: Wait for 4 or more officers or SWAT team to deploy and then assault.
Risks: Higher than Option 1 to officers. Students still at high risk. Time is ticking. Seconds count. People are dying. How long will you wait?
Option 3: Immediate assault with first available officers. Take the bad guys under fire and put them under duress. Take away their ability to think clearly. Isolate their mobility and rapidly neutralize them.
Risks: Higher chance for officers to be wounded or killed. Higher chance of a “blue on blue” if other units are injected into the situation without good command and control. Best chance for survival to students that are not locked down in a protected area or haven’t managed to escape.
Here we have a situation where time is working against the officer. Students are being killed. Seconds count.
The knowledge and skill level of officers on scene at that time. Handgun and ammunition on belt, other items on belt such as pepper spray, baton, Taser, etc. Possibly long gun if not too far away. Protective vest. One other officer available immediately. Others responding. ETA 15 minutes. (ETA’s of more than an hour are common in rural parts of the US.)
A complex situation. Mission priorities have to be established immediately. First priority: Stop the killing, takes precedence over other mission needs. Other priorities are fulfilled as more personnel become available. Much room for discussion here. Reporting using the equations would lay out the variables in the aftermath and allow for clear, concise debriefing and testimony.
What will you decide?
Arrest-and-Control gone bad.
While on a domestic disturbance call you have contacted a large, belligerent subject in the parking lot. As you attempt to calm the situation, he suddenly assaults you. He gets you on the ground and gets on top of you, smashing blows down to your head and face. You now have a larger, stronger opponent on top of you. You are in a very vulnerable position.
Your mission has changed from defusing the situation or arresting the subject to a close quarter survival situation.
Option 1: Attempt to control the subject using whatever knowledge and skills you have at that time.
Risk: One good blow to your face from a mounted opponent and it’s lights out for you. From there, your life is in the hands of the attacker. Are you really skilled? Remember, he’s got you down on the ground already and is in a position of advantage.
Option 2: Deploy a less lethal option from your belt. OC or Taser or baton.
Risks: While you are reaching for your belt, you leave yourself open to a smashing attack from above. Taser at close range may not be effective. OC may be ineffective as well. Baton strikes from below may be very marginal in effectiveness. Time is working against you. Your life is at stake here.
Option 3: Protect your head and neck by re-positioning to the side. Trap his arm on that side and access lethal force tools available to aid you in your survival. Gun, backup gun, knife etc.
Risks: You must be able to access your available tools without taking a debilitating blow or having the tool taken away and used against you.
Is working against you. One good blow to your head/face and your ability to protect yourself either goes away or is severely diminished.
Now, let’s throw in a wrinkle…
Your ground skills are not all that great. You did your last ground fighting skills training a year ago and haven’t done anything since. You successfully managed to get to a side position but your opponent is lying across your body and your Taser, OC and baton are covered by his body. Your only external weapon resource available in those few precious seconds of respite before he repositions is your firearm. No other officer is available at your location, though there are two in the parking lot 200 feet away contacting other parties to the incident.
You start your initial defense as you are taken to the ground with option one. The fight is on! He has gotten on top of you and is smashing you in the head repeatedly as you desperately try to defend yourself. You are using a lot of energy to keep him at bay. You are rapidly approaching physical exhaustion. You stop thinking of it as an arrest-and-control situation and are in fear for your life. You proceed with Option 3. You reposition your body and trap his arm nearest your gun .You bring the gun to bear and shoot him through the arm and body; ending the conflict.
In this situation, you can clearly articulate why you used the firearm even when you had other resources on your belt.
Let’s review the equation in the aftermath of the encounter to explain your actions.
Risk vs. Need ÷ Time + Resources Available = Decision
Your mission changed from arrest-and-control to the need to protect your life. You were stuck in an extremely vulnerable position with a physically superior opponent in terms of size and strength and you were being attacked with deadly force. You were not able to control the subject using your current physical skills and training.
In each of the various options the risk was very high for serious bodily injury or death to you.
Working against you. You were physically exhausted and moments away from helplessness. In split seconds an incapacitating blow would likely have come down and taken you out of the fight.
Physical ability, skills and training, tools on belt.
Your physical resources were waning. As you rapidly tired, fighting to survive, you could feel the situation becoming more desperate. Your opponent was clearly winning this fight on a physical level. The only tool you could access, from your position and your opponent’s position, in the few seconds allowed, was your firearm. This might also be your backup firearm if he was lying across your primary weapon. Option 3 sounds best to me, given this situation.
Training to use this equation under duress is the real key to good decision making. People tend to default to whatever first comes to mind when they are put under pressure. A lot of the time, you will find yourself scratching your head trying to figure out why people do the things they do.
Immediate action drills are great when you are surprised and need to survive the first moments of a crisis. But nothing beats critical thinking skills in the moment for superior performance. This formula, and the critical thinking skills it develops, can help ahead of time in training scenarios, at the moment of truth when lives hang in the balance, and afterward when you have to articulate and justify your actions.
I would like to thank my advisory council members (Rocky Mountain Tactical Institute) for their timely input and advice in putting together this piece. Thanks to all!
* (From The Rocky Mountain Tactical Institute - Non-Profit 501(c) (3) Standards and Guidelines for Training (2007), Tactical Decision Making Equation. Copyright: Ronald E. Avery)