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12 steps to being a more decisive cop

Courage is not taking action in the absence of fear, but taking action in spite of fear

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When an officer is able to continually make good decisions under stress, he or she is a precious commodity.


There are moments in every cop’s career where being decisive is an absolute necessity.

Field training officers will confirm that most entry-level recruits are not born decisive, but that decisiveness must be cultivated in young officers.

Here are 12 steps for developing decisiveness:

1. Look for opportunities to critically think

There was an old night shift sergeant years ago who, whenever a new officer brought a situation to his attention and asked him how to proceed, would say, “If I wasn’t here, how would you handle it?”

There would always be a few moments of silence and then the young officer would put forward a plan of action for consideration.

The sergeant would listen and, in most cases, respond with, “Sounds good to me.”

The wise old sergeant was perfectly capable of giving each officer a course of action, but he chose instead to develop their critical thinking skills. He became their net rather than their crutch.

Soon the young coppers were flying high without a net.

2. Understand authority

Police authority is given by statutes and can be suddenly restricted by new court rulings or arbitrary directives by people in leadership.

Understanding the extent and limits of authority is crucial in decision-making.

3. Train to be prepared

High-quality training prepares officers to take action under stress that appears to be automatic. Here is a formula:

Pre-trained + pre-planned = pre-pared.

4. Give positive and timely critique

Part of becoming effectively decisive is having a team of supervisors and trainers who have the courage to give positive and timely critiques. This also means an officer has to be able to accept critique and learn from his or her mistakes.

5. Experience counts

The more often a police officer successfully navigates through a difficult call, the more prepared they are to make rapid, correct decisions in similar situations in the future. For example, a former army medic and EMT who is now a police officer will more decisively apply a tourniquet when faced with arterial bleeding than a recruit who practiced it once in the police academy six months earlier.

6. Proper tools enable officers to take action

It is easier to decisively take the correct action in a crisis when an officer has the proper tools. Of late, departments have shown great leadership in meeting modern challenges by expanding the tools available to street officers. Examples of this are the presence of tourniquets, TASERs, less lethal munitions, naloxone and AEDs.

7. Words of encouragement

Police officers find it easier to make difficult decisions when their peers, supervisors and community have a history of showing encouragement. Recognize great work you hope to see repeated. You don’t have to have stripes or bars to tell a fellow officer, “Great job!”

If a department or a community does not back their police officers when they are in the right, some officers will choose to back off.

8. Instill confidence

Following years of training, experiences and repeated successes, officers gain confidence. This confidence leads to decisiveness under stress. When a confident officer arrives on scene, the confidence is as clearly on display to all present as his or her uniform.

9. Maintain training

Training should not end at entry-level. Knowledge and skills need to be updated on a regular basis. When unpracticed, psychomotor skills deteriorate over time.

Knowledge not only can be forgotten, but legal decisions, technology, equipment, weapons, policies and procedures change over time. Police officers must keep abreast of changes. No piece of new equipment should be placed in a squad or hung on a duty belt without the officer being supremely proficient in its use.

10. Desire

To be decisive takes personal desire. It is easy to be disappointed by the blows that are delivered by this profession and decide to fly low and slow, or even hang back. With time it becomes apparent to police officers that more pay is not received for doing more. More grief is too often the reward for doing more.

Officers can blame a lack of desire on supervisors, politicians, the media, or the community, but ultimately every officer has response-ability. That is the ability to choose to respond to every call with empathy or apathy. It’s their call.

Ultimately, everyone is responsible for their own morale.

11. Courage

The most important aspect of decisiveness is courage.

Courage is not taking action in the absence of fear, but taking action in spite of fear. To engage in the proper first steps toward the successful conclusion of an emergency situation while fearing failure, or much worse, is indeed courageous.

12. The ability to decide

Being decisive requires the basic ability to make decisions.

Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Nothing is more difficult and therefore more precious than the ability to decide.”

When an officer is able to continually make good decisions under stress, he or she is a precious commodity. They become that cop who, when things are at their worst, is always at their best. They become a cop’s cop!


Over time decisiveness can be developed in every police officer. The challenge with law enforcement is that from day one the need to be decisive might be thrust upon an officer at any moment. When that moment arrives, the ability to be decisive will indeed be “precious,” as precious as life itself.

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.