Lessons in Leadership: The 5 Ps of policing

No matter what my assignment was, I knew preparation was one of the single largest contributors to producing a safe outcome


This article is part of a 10-part Lessons in Leadership series by Rich Emberlin. Click here to access all of Rich’s leadership lessons.

Policing has historically been a job; today it is recognized as a genuine profession. Today’s police force is comprised of highly trained, exceptionally smart individuals who possess specialized knowledge and skills. Whether it’s a police chief overseeing a department or a patrol officer responding to 9-1-1 calls, law enforcement leaders exist in all ranks of our profession.

Lessons in Leadership is a 10-part series covering the most important principles I learned during my nearly 30-year career with the Dallas Police Department. From explosive confrontations to quiet defining moments, there’s no shortage of wisdom to be earned in one of the world’s most dangerous professions.

My father, a tough-as-nails combat aviator, always talked to me about the five Ps: proper preparation prevents poor performance. I lived by those words once I became a police officer. No matter what my assignment was – from patrol and narcotics to special operations and criminal intelligence – I knew preparation was one of the single largest contributors to a safe outcome.

Training is the foundation of preparedness and the key to proficiency. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Training is the foundation of preparedness and the key to proficiency. (Photo/PoliceOne)

Why standard operating procedures matter

Dallas SWAT was running about 800 operations a year at our peak, the majority of which were successful. It had nothing to do with luck or circumstance; if anything, we were usually dealt the worst hand on both accounts. Preparedness was the common thread, as it should be in all aspects of police work. All SWAT operations – from a simple buy-bust operation to a multi-hit warrant execution – followed standard operating procedures (SOPs). We had planning down to a science. Every detail was worked out in advance, from who was jumping out of the van first to who was responsible for handcuffing.

SOPs should be clearly defined, written out and enforced in every law enforcement agency. I can hear the collective groan out there, but SOPs aren’t there to jam you up. They exist for a reason, the main one being to save your life. They produce superior results by promoting clarity, uniformity and, most important, the quality and integrity of your processes. Otherwise, people have a tendency to take shortcuts or freelance. An investment of time and energy into proper preparation will exponentially increase your chances of being successful, and staying safe, in any part of the job.

Training is the foundation of preparedness

We all know the saying: Fight like you train, and train like you fight. Training is the foundation of preparedness and the key to proficiency. In SWAT, we practiced every physical and mental task relentlessly until it became second nature. Training builds cognitive and muscle memory. Anyone who’s learned how to drive a car, shoot a firearm, or type on a keyboard (my hunt-and-peck method doesn’t count) understands muscle memory. Once you’ve done it enough times, it no longer requires intense concentration. The movements become automatic. You just do it.

Thankfully, most SWAT operators, and patrol officers as well, will make it through their entire careers without ever firing their weapons on a mission. Yet we were still issued 500 rounds of ammunition per month for target practice and other shooting drills. Why? A motion must be repeated about 2,000 times before it can be done quickly and efficiently. We spent hours at the range, firing thousands of rounds, so that one bullet would hit its target when it really mattered.

We also rehearsed warrant executions, hostage rescues and barricaded suspect situations. It didn’t matter if it was the middle of the night or a scorching Texas summer day, as my lieutenant used to say, “If it’s rainin’, we’re trainin’.” Every squad trained for 8-16 hours per week, and the entire unit trained together for 8 hours per month. No one complained.

When the time comes, officers fall back on their training. They’re better prepared to make a decision or execute a tactic because they’ve done it a thousand times in practice when real bullets aren’t flying.

Avoid the normalization of deviance

There’s a concept called the normalization of deviance. It’s widely attributed to sociologist Dr. Diane Vaughan, author of “The Challenger Launch Decision.” It’s since been applied to a variety of industries, and I believe it’s especially relevant to policing.

The normalization of deviance can be defined as the process through which unacceptable or unsafe practices come to be considered normal or acceptable over time if they do not immediately cause a catastrophe.

A simple example is not buckling your seat belt for 10 years. You’ve never been involved in a crash before and therefore normalize this unsafe practice. It only takes one incident to eject a person from an automobile, as we’ve seen in fatal collisions. Or maybe you answer a two-man call by yourself because you’ve always done it, and it always worked out fine before. Until it doesn’t.

Officers have to self-police their own deviance. You can believe in your own press and your own invincibility until someone kicks you off your police pedestal. Many of us have made routine traffic stops or answered routine calls a thousand times. There is no such thing as “routine.” Experience makes us better officers, but that’s the time when complacency can creep in. In the police academy, I remember our instructors giving us the statistics on how many of us would likely be killed during our careers. You never think it’s going to be you; it’s going to be the guy next to you. Don’t rationalize the use of unsafe practices because one day, your luck might just run out.

Police leaders must be accountable for maintaining and enforcing standards at the highest level of the department. With dozens, hundreds or even thousands of officers to oversee, this can be a challenge. Body-worn cameras and dash cams are very helpful in identifying deviance. Supervisors routinely review footage to ensure that officers are following safe practices. Observation by fellow officers, field training officers and sergeants can also provide valuable insight.

Recurrent training is also an important tool for informing and educating the troops. When I was with the Dallas Police Department, we had a mandatory 40 hours of updates every two years. This covered everything from changes in the law and search and seizure to specialized handling of autistic children. The case studies represented the most valuable portion of the training. They were real-life examples of things that went wrong. The purpose of sharing these stories was not to denigrate the officers involved or play Monday-morning quarterback. It was to learn from them so another officer wouldn’t make the same mistake. Sometimes, the involved officer came to the academy and personally did the lecture. In between recurrent trainings, police leaders can always issue special orders if a prevalent issue arises that must be addressed immediately.

Sadly, there are always going to be new situations that hurt and kill police officers. We are operating in the era of the unexpected, whether it’s an ambush or “routine” call or traffic stop that turns deadly. It’s impossible to predict the future, but we increase our chances of success by preparing for every eventuality. Benjamin Franklin said it best: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

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