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Are you prepared to adapt and win on the street?

“Adaptability is an effective change in response to an altered situation. Adaptability is not speed of reaction, but the slower, more deliberate processes associated with problem solving.”
— Don Vandergriff

You’ve got to have an “ace in the hole” — a little secret that nobody knows. Life is a gamble, a game we all play, but you need to save something for a rainy day. You’ve got to learn to play your cards right if you expect to WIN in life. Don’t put it all on the line for just one roll. You’ve got to have an ace in the hole.

If you’re headed down a one way street and you’re not sure it’s the way you wanna go. In money or love, or all the above, Have a little more than what you show. When life deals out a surprise have a few surprises of your own. No matter what you do, no matter where you go you’ve got to have an ace in the hole.

So the song goes, as it talks of life, love and all the above. With cops being killed in the line of duty at a 60 percent higher rate than two years ago, and nice cops (as of this writing) already tragically lost in 2012, this ability to adapt and shift tactics in my view is a big missing factor in our training and in our thinking in the law enforcement profession. This “ace in the hole” concept conjures up thoughts of being agile, flexible and being prepared for the worst. In other words being adaptable, being prepared to adjust our responses to meet the changing conditions we encounter on the street. Are we willing to make the shift in mindset to that of one that includes adaptability?

We Need Problem Solvers
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, etc.) this tendency often creates friction in decision making of an officer. You know friction; that which makes the apparently easy difficult. Those things running through our minds useful or not, that slow decision making down. This is not to say that dealing with people when emotions are high is easy, it certainly is not. In fact, dealing with people in conflict is one of the most unpredictable things we can encounter in life cop or not.

What has troubled me for some time in our profession is that policies and procedures and checklist driven law enforcement organizations are teaching cops what to think and do, instead of HOW to think and do. Despite the talk to the contrary we are not creating and nurturing problem solvers in law enforcement. Instead we are creating rule- and checklist-followers and this, is, I believe dangerous and part of the problem when it comes to officer safety and effectiveness. Dangerous in the sense that the types of circumstances cops handle are dynamic, rapidly changing, complex situations that require walking, talking, thinking cops. Policies take the thinking out of the equation.

For years, those of us who train other officers thought policies and procedures were the answer. In reality, as soon as circumstances change, to something an officer on the street has never seen before, many do not adapt. They cannot think of a new plan. They fail to adapt to the changes they see, and either freeze, while trying to figure out what’s going on or what to do, or they carry on unaware. They wind up moving forward emotionally charged with yesterday’s plan, policy or procedure that does not work today. Their actions do not fit the circumstances and they stay in a battle they are not able to win with the chosen method or tactic they believe they are suppose to use, putting the officer(s) in jeopardy. Is this tendency to standardize tactics, policy and procedures and practices causing us to lend the initiative to our adversaries and giving those cop killers more of an advantage than they already start with?

Officer Created Jeopardy (OCJ) comes from a failure to adapt to changing conditions. OCJ is enhanced by emotion that instills a false sense of urgency verse a true sense of urgency, complacency verses awareness, habit verses innovation, and personal attributes that stifle insight into a tactical encounter. OCJ is also comes from the lack of knowledge and/or the inability to apply knowledge in a strategic and tactical way to the changing conditions, considering the factors of time and risk. Officer Created Jeopardy can also be created, within an organization, where distrust and lack of support are the prevailing feelings for action taken outside of procedural guidelines. Does this sound familiar? If so how do we fix this problem?

Both Art and Science
Understanding tactics is an art and science is something we all must strive to grasp. Applying tactics based solely on policy and procedure, or yesterday’s battle applied to today’s situation is a critical decision — one that should be based on the conditions officer(s) are dealing with, and not a canned response. A decision that affects the outcomes in a given set of circumstances requires interaction, insight, initiative and innovation on the part of officer(s), and the ability and flexibility to make decisions in the heat of the moment has a direct effect on officer created jeopardy and the overall outcome.

The (often) missing link of strategy and tactics is operational art–or, applying what we know to a given set of circumstances. Operational art is the link between ends (strategy) and our means (tactics) to reach the safe and effective outcomes we are striving for based on the unfolding conditions, not yesterday’s situation but today’s. Operational art is applying our knowledge to the situation at hand, and considers the moral, mental and physical dimensions of conflict, as well as the methods and tactics we use in implementing our strategy to protect and serve no matter what the call or circumstances are.

Gen. A.M. Gray states; “In tactics, the most important thing is not whether you go left or right, but WHY you go left or right.” Police officers often have little understanding of the reasons (WHY) 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 and in responding) so why do we continue to focus on policy and procedure development verse developing decision makers and problem solvers? 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 ways. Why are still doing the same old things, the same old way as those who pose a threat evolve in their methods?

The ability to adapt to changing conditions in rapidly changing circumstances, and to seize the initiative, requires the ability to think on your feet. We must adapt our response to the circumstances not the other way around. Adapting to the changing conditions is what makes a true professional. It’s what separates the true tactical artisan from the theorist. The ability to adapt is what separates the doers from the talkers.

The OODA Loop
Winning on the street requires you; observe, orient, decide, and act. Col. John Boyd explained a person(s) in a conflict must observe the environment, to include himself, his adversary, the moral, mental and physical situation, of potential allies and opponents. He must orient to what it all means, “what’s going on” which is part of the ongoing process throughout the tactical situation. Orientation involves the information observed, and how it’s interpreted based on ones genetic heritage, social environment, prior experiences (birth-present) and the ongoing circumstances (what’s happening now) that forms a ongoing picture of the situation. The results one forms during the orientation phase must be decided upon and an attempt need be made to carry out the decision, and finally, he must act.

Is adaptability; the ability to make an effective change to an altered situation, a key attribute officers must possess in reducing law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty or is it more policy and procedure that’s needed? If adaptability is a key factor, are cops being trained and prepared to observe, orient, decide and act or is the policies and procedure, canned response driven culture of law enforcement putting cops and those they serve in jeopardy? Have we even considered this?

Doing things the way they have always been done is fool hearted and unprofessional. Do we not owe it to ourselves and those we serve to leverage every lesson from the street to continually learn, unlearn and relearn and then apply those lessons? On the other hand, change for the sake of change is just as well fool hearted, but isn’t effective change to enhance safety and effectiveness a good idea? Change to meet the challenges that lie ahead and prepare all for both conventional and unconventional problems and threats law enforcement is to encounter, will take strength of character and leadership. Leadership needs to come from front-line personnel, mid-level supervisors and administrators, and the community as well as, local government leaders.

Life (policing) is a gamble (considering time and risk), a game we all play, but you need to save something for a rainy day (the day you face the ultimate challenge of life or death). You’ve got to learn to play your cards right (tactical options) if you expect to win in life. Do you have and are you prepared to use your Ace in the hole?

Thanks to country music artist George Strait and his song “Ace in the hole” for inspiring this essay on officer safety.

“Situation Awareness implies one takes a holistic approach to identify threats & opportunities through analysis and intuition; then follow through with timely decision and prosecution. Situational Awareness is also known as Coup d’oeil, or Stroke of the Eye.” ~Swot Hunter

Stay Oriented!

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.