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2012 in Review: 13 questions to answer in 2013

What has 2012 taught you about officer safety and effectiveness?

As this is the last week of the year, many of us are understandably looking back at the past 12 months and discussing what we consider to be the significant events of 2012.

In most cases, such discussions tend to focus on the numerous challenges and upheavals we’ve either watched from afar or witnessed firsthand — from police response to crisis to police officers being ambushed and killed in the line of duty.

There’s no question this year as well as years past has brought about much adversity and numerous lessons we can learn from. As cops we are no strangers to adversity. Crime fighting has taken its toll. Since the first recorded police death in 1791, there have been more than 19,000 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.

Let’s also not forget that on average almost, 60,000 cops are assaulted each year, with over half of these assaults leading to serious life-threatening injuries.

Learning from Experience
General of the Army Omar N. Bradley once said, “I learned that good judgment comes from experience and that experience grows out of mistakes.”

Adversity in and of itself is not necessarily a positive or negative thing. Rather, it’s what we do, and whether or not we’re open to learning from it that should decide whether adversity has been of benefit or harmful to us.

Is it not time we, each and every one of us cops, start making a conscious effort in learning from experience and applying the lessons learned from the street, and focus our efforts on being more safe and effective?

At this writing, law enforcement officer’s killed in the line of duty numbers are down 21 percent and any time these numbers are going downward is a good thing.

However, one loss of a cop’s life is tragic most especially when it could have been prevented through the utilization of sound tactics and decision making learned from the lessons of, the over 19,000 cops, who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Is there not power to persevere if we apply these lessons from our law enforcement history and collective experience, as opposed to, repeating them?

Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” so why not learn from our experiences and apply some bottoms/up thinking and problem solving to the tactical problems we face versus responding like automatons?

Experience is a reliable guide when it is relevant to the contemporary and future operating environment and missions, and when it’s filtered, processed and stored in the brain using enduring principles and useful, reliable thought models. We are professionally obligated to do whatever we can to gain whatever experience we can without paying full price.

That is precisely why we study past incidents and precisely why we should be applying lessons learned. To learn as quickly as possible, we must be more deliberate, more disciplined, and more thorough in our approach in order to squeeze as much as possible from each experience.

As with everything else about mental conditioning and preparation, there is no magic here. We can treat any experience as an opportunity to learn. It takes hard work and a willingness to continually learn and adapt.

The most valuable thing we can do is to take this natural tendency to question and critique our decisions and refine and discipline it. Instead of passing judgment about whether it was a good or bad decision, we should focus on understanding the decision making process, WHY we decided what we did and how we made the decision. Utilize the after action review or a decision making critique as tool to learn versus to blame or to punish.

This all leads us to one fundamental question: How do we get better at doing what we do?

Critical Questions to Ponder
Remember critiques are valuable tools for learning and as Carl von Clausewitz stated, “criticism exists only to recognize the truth, not to act as judge.”

We may legitimately criticize a decision without implying that we ourselves would have done better. To get better, to be safer, we must understand this.

This leads me to my final statement, on to getting better and to being safer. To be more effective in 2013 and beyond, we must be self-aware and open-minded to new ideas and new ways of thinking and doing.

Open-minded to change not for the sake of change but instead change, for the sake of responding accordingly to the novel and rapidly changing conditions we find ourselves in as we respond to the unknown, the uncertain and unexpected.

Critical questions to ponder for safer and more effective policing:

1.) Most law enforcement agencies have settled for mere adequacy in individual and small-team skills — can we do better?
2.) We often give ourselves feedback. It’s natural for us to contemplate our decisions after the fact. We often beat ourselves up over bad decisions and congratulate ourselves for good ones. We “what if” ourselves to death but are we considering the circumstances and options and learning from the “what ifs” or are we just talking the talk without walking the walk and becoming better at what we do?
3.) Police officers often have little understanding of the reasons tasks were performed a particular way. Police officers are overly reliant on process, not focused enough on results (true in training, but also in planning and leading) so why do we continue to focus solely on policy and procedure development versus developing decision makers and problem solvers?
4.) In law enforcement there is a pronounced tendency at all levels of law enforcement to control by rules — each problem seems to result in more rules (policies, regulations, directives, and whatnot) this tendency often creates friction in decision making. I thought we in law enforcement were doing away with centralized control and wanted a decentralized structure so we could solve problems in an efficient and effective way. Why are still doing the same old things, the same old way?
5.) Are you willing and capable to go beyond merely repeating information learned from training, higher command, or policy and procedure by effectively analyzing the threat for an encounter, car stop, domestic violence call, robbery, suspicious person, warrant service, etc. while keeping in accord with your commanders intent?
6.) Leaders are your officers allowed to develop innovative courses of actions that ensure unity of effort by their fellow officers and adhere to the commander’s intent and overall mission of policing?
7.) Are you willing and able to become an adaptive tactical planner and avoid focusing on only one possible course of action?
8.) Are you willing and able to develop courses of action that are able to deal with multiple threats while still remaining focused on accomplishment of the assigned mission?
9.) Are you willing and able to become a more effective tactical communicator considering both the friendly and adversarial ramifications?
10.) If you are a leader are you communicating effectively enough so that frontline personnel come away from briefings understanding what it is that they are expected to do and why they are supposed to do it?
11.) Leaders are you providing frontline personnel with guidance that is clear enough to ensure unity of effort and adherence to the commanders intent but also flexible enough to allow frontline the ability to exercise initiative as the situation on the ground changes providing clarity of guidance without micro-managing? Have you thought about WHY this matters to effectiveness and safety on the street?
12.) Law enforcement leaders who are also trainers, do you understand in your quest to teach others how to be effective and safe — it’s about teaching the frontline “how to think” not “what to think.”
13.) Experience has taught us there is no single, scientific solution to a tactical problem with this in mind have you developed policies and procedures that blend with people and ideas allowing for adaptability and tactics that fit the circumstances?

Law enforcement training must shift from training law enforcement officers how to apply solutions and enforce standards to teaching officers how to frame problems and solve them.

Wouldn’t this be a more effective way of leveraging every cops experience and insight?

Would this not help cops as they interact with the public in their ability to take the initiative and apply innovative solutions to problems they encounter on the street?

Would this help reduce friction in decision making, in dangerous situations and create and nurture the development of problem solvers and decision makers on the frontline where the life and death decisions are made?

There are numerous other critical questions I am sure you all could come up with, adding to my list and I challenge each and every one of you to do so.

Fred T. Leland, Jr. is the founder and principal trainer of LESC: Law Enforcement & Security Consulting. He retired as a police lieutenant with the Walpole (Mass.) Police Department in 2016. He previously worked as a deputy with the Charlotte County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Department and before that spent six years with the United States Marines, including as a squad leader in Beirut, Lebanon.

Leland is an accomplished trainer teaching law enforcement, military and security professionals. His programs of instruction include handling dynamic encounters, threat assessment, non-verbal communications, decision-making under pressure, evolving threats, violence prevention, firearms, use of force, officer-created jeopardy and adaptive leadership. He is also a 2004 graduate of the FBI National Academy Class 216, and a current instructor for the Massachusetts Municipal Police Training Committee.