Exercise your mind: Tactics for successful decision making in a critical incident

Despite the intense pressures and dangers associated with decision making in the law enforcement environment, we are expected to make the right choice every time


The final day of the SHOT 2016 Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP) got off to a quick start under the capable leadership of RK Miller, President of National Training Concepts, and a National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) Instructor. Using his 30-plus years of experience as a police officer, instructor, and leader (and a student of influential law enforcement giants like Sid Heal, Ron McCarthy and Mike Hillmann), RK led the assembled crowd through an examination of decision making for law enforcement, with an emphasis on making the right choices under pressure.

RK reminded us that despite the intense pressures and dangers associated with decision making in the law enforcement environment, we are expected to make the right choice every time and factor in an extensive list of criteria to include whether or not the contemplated action is lawful, ethical, reasonable, consistent with policy, and tactically sound. If any one of these vital components is not met, then we risk making a bad decision that could endanger life and make the situation worse.

To illustrate his point, RK led the class through a number of videos in which law enforcement officers were required to make use of force decisions in both training and operational environments. Some of those decisions were good ones, while others were bad, but every example offered the class an opportunity to practice their own analysis and decision-making skills, and determine if all the decision-making priorities had been met by the involved officers.  Sadly, many of these cases had an unnecessarily tragic ending, which could have been easily avoided if officers had approached them with a proper mindset.

Controlling Emotion
RK discussed and demonstrated how officers sometimes allow their emotions to take control of their thinking, speech and actions, and how this almost invariably results in poor decision making.  He used real life examples to demonstrate how slowing things down, keeping emotions in check, and using rational decision-making skills could dramatically improve the outcome of  law enforcement confrontations.

It's important here to understand that RK isn't an ivory tower academic with no clue about the dangers and conditions faced by law enforcement. He's a highly experienced patrol and SWAT officer who's "been there and done that," and he understands how difficult it can be to switch gears and override out of control emotions. He understands and discussed how the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, tactical challenges, fears and chaos of a real world situation can overwhelm an officer and hinder his ability to think and respond clearly.

Perhaps this is why the most important point of his lecture is that we cannot wait to think and make our decisions until we are confronted with jeopardy. In the heat of the moment, your ability to think and act clearly may be compromised and it may negatively affect the quality of your decisions.

Preparing Now
Instead, RK advises that we should strive to prepare for those difficult decisions now. Successful decision-making under stress is more about how we train, educate, prepare, think, and handle ourselves on a daily basis than it is about the choices we make when the balloon goes up. If you create a habit pattern of thoughtful analysis and response in your daily life, then you are preparing yourself to operate at your best when the conditions are at their worst--when the information is incomplete, the time is short, the dangers are real, and the cost of making the wrong choice is high.

This is why RK is such an advocate for realistic and challenging training, and a strict enforcement of safe and efficient weapons handling during training. To that end, he discussed guidelines on how to conduct weapons training and suggested various training concepts and drills designed to push officers into applying decision-making skills with a weapon in their hand. If an instructor can habituate his officers to thinking, moving and communicating on the range or in the simulator, then they will be better prepared to handle the difficult and stressful real world incidents they will encounter on patrol.

One example of a real world incident that is becoming increasingly common is the active shooter scenario. These highly dynamic and complex events put a tremendous strain on the decision-making abilities of individual officers, as well as command staffs and other responders. Using the latest information, RK discussed the lessons learned from the December 2015 San Bernardino (Calif.) terrorist attack and challenged the class to think through the myriad of tactical concerns that such an attack would present. In doing so, he helped the students take a critical step towards becoming better prepared to make good decisions in a similar event down the road...and we all know that another one is coming.

Take advantage of the time you have now to do the same thing. Strive to train, educate, prepare and exercise your mind today so that you'll build good habits you can rely on when the worst happens. Good decision making is a byproduct of your preparation, not a trick that you pull off at the last moment.

To learn more about NTOA and NTOA-sponsored training opportunities, visit their website at https://ntoa.org.

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