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Lessons in Leadership: 3 things a wild police pursuit taught me about decisiveness

Police officers operate along a vast continuum that stretches from stepping it up to reining it in, and it’s not uncommon to oscillate between the two during an operation

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.

Decisiveness is a widely misunderstood concept in the policing world. The American public, fed a steady diet of television dramas, thinks our instinctive reaction to every situation is to kick in doors with a well-placed boot and yell “POLICE!”

While the life-and-death nature of our work requires us to make critical decisions quickly and confidently, law enforcement officers must consider the totality of the circumstances when choosing a course of action.

We operate along a vast continuum that stretches from stepping it up to reining it in, and it’s not uncommon to oscillate between the two during an operation. Depending on the situation, we may kick in the door within seconds or set up a perimeter and work toward a peaceful resolution over a period of hours.

Potential hostage situation

The mood in the country was still somber on November 7, 2001, nearly two months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We were a nation on edge. A no-fly zone was in effect over Dallas, with the exception of police helicopters, care flights and aircraft bound for Love Field. My SWAT team had just finished executing a narcotics search warrant in southeast Dallas when we heard sirens blaring in the vicinity.

The police radio crackled: “All units, be advised. Patrol units are in pursuit of a stolen 18-wheeler carrying a full cargo of lumber. The driver may be trapped on the back of the cab.”

The driver had stopped at a fast-food restaurant and left the keys in the vehicle. The suspect, Burnice Wilson, 42, broke into the cab and drove off. There were reports that the driver chased after Wilson and was now trapped between the cab and the trailer; it was unknown whether he was injured. In my mind, this was now a rolling hostage situation. Members of the SWAT team exchanged anxious looks. Patrol officers were already in pursuit, and SWAT hadn’t been asked to the party yet. But we couldn’t afford to be single-minded.

1. Assess the totality of the circumstances

Decision-making in our world is a deliberate process that’s always driven by an awareness of life-and-death consequences. Sometimes we only get milliseconds to react before making a choice. That’s why law enforcement officers, and those in command in particular, must be incredibly adept at assessing the totality of the circumstances in a time-compressed environment.

In the heat of the moment, it can be extremely challenging to make decisions based on the totality of the circumstances. That’s why it’s important to have confident, level-headed leaders who look at the big picture and ask:

  • What factors are in play?
  • What is the context in which dynamic situations are unfolding?

Stealing a car might be commonplace, but stealing a big rig is not so common. It had been only two months since America’s biggest tragedy. What could Wilson’s intent possibly be hijacking a vehicle weighing tens of thousands of pounds? Framed in the post-9/11 world, the picture of a weaponized 18-wheeler barreling toward downtown Dallas could only mean one thing. We were itching to go, but our sergeant hesitated. Technically, we’d be going against strict chase protocol without an official order. The conflicted look on his face said, damned if we do, damned if we don’t. It only took a minute for the former to win out.

We piled into our vans, took off after the semi-truck and followed it for over an hour. Even though we quickly joined in the pursuit and Wilson was weaving precariously in and out of traffic, we weren’t authorized to use force.

Decisiveness can result in immediate action or manifest as further evaluation and restraint. Full throttle isn’t always the answer. The consequence-driven mindset comes into play again when choosing whether to step it up or rein it in.

Police officers exercise restraint in the interest of the public’s safety and our own. At this point, we had yet to identify the suspect’s intentions. If he was armed and we aggravated him by using force, he could become even more dangerous to hundreds of passing motorists and pedestrians. Our department policy at the time didn’t allow us to shoot out tires or disable the engine. We continued following him, tried to clear the roadways, and hoped he would either surrender or run out of gas.

2. Avoid plan continuation bias

It caught us all by surprise when the truck caught on fire. Plumes of black smoke billowed into the air before the lumber erupted into flames. Apparently, the driver had jumped on board to disengage the trailer’s air brakes before Wilson sped off. This triggered the manual brakes to lock down, overheat and blow the back tires. The grinding rims on concrete eventually sent sparks flying and ignited the lumber. The only thing worse than a stolen 18-wheeler plowing through Dallas is a stolen, burning 18-wheeler plowing through Dallas.

At one point in the chase, Wilson attempted to drive over a median and popped the clutch, momentarily stopping the truck. Acting on orders to launch gas into the cab, I jumped out of the van, took off running, and fired a 37mm gas round at the driver’s side as Wilson pulled away again. The shot went high, he kept driving, and the chase continued. Lumber started spilling onto the roadway as Wilson weaved the big rig back and forth to dislodge it; large planks of wood smashed into the back of a school bus after it narrowly swerved to avoid a full collision with the truck.

That was the final straw for SWAT commander Mona Neill, who had been following the incident on national TV back at the station. She had always been one of my favorite leaders – a decisive individual who knew when to step it up and when to rein it in. Her voice came over the radio, clear and resolute: “To all 800 elements, you have a code 100 on this suspect.”

That order, issued almost instantly after the near-collision with the school bus, underscored Commander Neill’s ability to assess the totality of the circumstances. There is an aviation industry concept known as plan continuation bias. It’s more commonly known as “get-there-itis” - an unconscious cognitive bias to stick with the original plan in spite of changing conditions. Sometimes it gets pilots and passengers killed; it can be deadly in law enforcement as well.

Commander Neill could have remained fixated on the original plan, ordering all officers to maintain course and wait for Wilson to surrender or run out of gas. She could have ignored the changing conditions with catastrophic consequences. Instead, she maintained situational awareness of new information and circumstances and shifted to plan B. There was no justification for continued restraint at that point, given the exponentially increased risk to the public and officers.

All SWAT personnel were now authorized to use deadly force to stop Wilson. In the back of our van, the operators looked at the pile of MP5s sitting in the center of the floor. Every man had tossed his weapon in when we left the narcotics warrant in a hurry. Not knowing whose MP5 belonged to whom, everyone grabbed a gun, racked a round, and sent a shower of 9mm bullets clattering to the floor. One in the chamber, 28 waiting, who knew how many it would take to stop this big rig?

Wilson stuck his head out of the driver’s side window at regular intervals to see what the police were doing. One of our snipers saw an opportunity and fired two rounds from his M4. The first one tore through the back of the cab as the second slammed into the driver’s-side rearview mirror, fragging the suspect in the face. A few moments later, the truck slowed to a stop. Wilson finally surrendered nearly two hours after the chase began. Officers swarmed the truck and brought him into custody.

3. Adopt a consequence-driven mindset

Although this wild police chase increased and decreased in tempo numerous times – as many operations tend to do – decisiveness was present during every aspect.

In this profession, the integrity of our decision-making starts first and foremost with a consequence-driven mindset. What is going to happen as a result of my decisions?

I’ve worked with many sergeants and commanders who understood the importance of thinking about “what’s next,” from the initial implications to cascading effects. I’ve also worked with short-sighted leaders who made critical choices based on knee-jerk reactions.

Additionally, true decisiveness can only result after assessing the totality of the circumstances. There’s rarely ever a single factor upon which to base a decision; it’s a confluence of facts, circumstances, the overall context and the all-important changing conditions. Decisiveness in the real policing world simply isn’t black and white – it can involve restraint one minute and use of force in the next. It’s our responsibility to decide when to step it up, rein it in or exercise any option in between.

Author’s note: The Lessons in Leadership series contains stories about real people and actual events that are portrayed to the best of my memory. Dialogue has been reconstructed from my recollections, which means it may not be a word-for-word transcript, but the essence of what was said is accurate.

Rich Emberlin is a 30-year law enforcement veteran who served most notably with the Dallas Police Department’s elite units, including Dallas SWAT, the Criminal Intelligence Unit and the Office of the Chief of Police. During his 15 years in SWAT, Rich participated in thousands of missions, including counter-terrorist operations, hostage rescues, barricaded suspect situations, and arrest and search warrant executions. As a detective in the Criminal Intelligence Unit, he was responsible for investigating protest groups and threats against government officials and police officers. Rich retired from the Dallas Police Department in 2016 and remains active in the industry as a law enforcement expert and instructor. He has appeared on shows including A&E Networks’ Live PD and Dallas SWAT, the Outdoor Channel’s Elite Tactical Unit and NRA-TV. Rich continues to serve his community as a reserve deputy for the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department.