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Situational awareness, officer safety, and ‘the explorer mentality’

Part Two: The exploring officer takes responsibility for the strategic choices of routes and objectives on his journey into the unknown

Editor’s Note: The below column from Fred Leland is the second part of a two-part series. Part one ran here on PoliceOne on Wednesday, June 27th and it is strongly recommended that you read part one before delving into the column below.

In part one of this two-part series, we examined the important ways in which recognizing patterns of behavior and applying the rule of opposites can be vital survival tools for law enforcement officers. If you haven’t yet read part one, I encourage you to click here before reading on in part two below.

Now that you’re caught up, you’ll recall that in part one I quoted Napoleon as saying, “The impressions which [a commander] receives successively or simultaneously in the course of a day should classify themselves in his mind in such a way as to occupy the place which they merit, because reason and judgment are the result of the comparison of various impressions taken into just consideration.”

Napoleon also famously said, “A general never knows anything with certainty, never sees his enemy clearly, and never knows positively where he is. When armies are face to face, the least accident in the ground, the smallest wood, may conceal part of the enemy army. The most experienced eye cannot be sure whether it sees the whole of the enemy’s army or only three-fourths. It is by the mind’s eye, by the integration of all reasoning, by a kind of inspiration that the general sees, knows, and judges.”

The Explorer Mentality
In order to effectively gather the appropriate information as it’s unfolding we must possess the explorer mentality and be able to recognize patterns of behavior and then recognize that which is outside that normal pattern. Then take the initiative so we maintain control.

Every call — every incident to which we respond — possesses novelty. Car stops, domestic violence calls, robberies, suspicious persons, etc. These individual types of incidents show similar patterns in many ways.

For example, on a car stop, the violator typically pulls over to the side of the road when signaled to do so. The officer, when ready, approaches the operator, a conversation ensues, paperwork is exchanged. A domestic violence call has its own normal patterns. Police arrive, separate involved parties, take statements, arrest the aggressor, and advise victim of abuse prevention rights.

We could go on like this for all the types of calls we handle as each type of incident on its own merits, does possess very similar patterns. Yet they always, and I mean always possess something different be it the location, the time of day, the person you are dealing with. Even if it’s the same person, location, time and day, the person you’re dealing who may now be in a different emotional state and his/her motives and intent may be very different and break that normal expected pattern, hence the need to always be open-minded, alert and aware, exploring for the signs and signals of positive or negative change in conditions.

In his Small Wars Journal article “Thinking and Acting Like an Early Explorer” Brigadier General Huba Wass de Czege (U.S. Army, ret.) describes the explorer mentality.

“While tactical and strategic thinking are fundamentally different, both kinds of thinking must take place in the explorer’s brain, but in separate compartments. To appreciate this, think of the metaphor of an early American explorer trying to cross a large expanse of unknown terrain long before the days of the modern conveniences mentioned in the previous paragraph,” Wass de Czege said.

“The explorer knows that somewhere to the west lies an ocean he wants to reach. He has only a sketch-map of a narrow corridor drawn by a previously unsuccessful explorer. He also knows that highly variable weather and frequent geologic activity can block mountain passes, flood rivers, and dry up desert water sources. He also knows that some native tribes are hostile to all strangers, some are friendly and others are fickle, but that warring and peace-making among them makes estimating their whereabouts and attitudes difficult.”

The metaphor of the early American explorer fits into policing and the complex problems we face on the street daily. We search for peaceful outcomes to situations. Despite similarities common to the types of incidents and crises we observe day to day, we come across numerous unknowns. Standard operating procedures, as well as policy and procedure practices, are all very useful when we have a standard problem — things will likely go as we plan.

Insight, Imagination, and Initiative
But what happens when things deviate from the standard and go outside the normal patterns? Here is where we must rely on resilience and adaptation, our ability and knowhow, and experienced people using their insights, imagination, and initiative to solve complex problems. As we interact with people the explorer mentality keeps us in the game, it keeps us alert and aware. The explorer mentality has us continually learning even as we accord with and adversary. The explorer never stops learning and is ever mindful of both obvious and subtle clues of danger and or cooperation.

General Wass de Czege goes on to say, “The logic the explorer must follow is one that will exploit the potential for a successful crossing to the far ocean within the country the expedition is traversing, based on an understanding drawn from partial clues only. This is choosing a strategic logic or rationale to decide what short-term concrete ends are achievable, reflect progress and allow the expedition to learn how to make even more progress. Whatever his strategic rationale of the moment, it is only as good as his current understanding. It is inconceivable that any strategy of ways and means he could formulate at the outset would not require extensive revision as he progressed and learned more about the country. Assuming he was not capable of easily overpowering all known and unknown potential difficulties — a very rare case, indeed.”

Strategic rationales for tactical actions are only good for the short term until they can be discarded and replaced by knowledge learned as a result of interacting with the complex environmental system you find yourself in. The environments are similar yet very different and in constant flux. Those we deal with could be hostile, friendly, or indifferent.

The explorer’s journey into the wilderness — into the unknown — is also a purposeful journey of learning. In fact, effective explorers are always improving their scouting. They’re continually revising and adjusting the expedition’s maps, plans, tactics, techniques, policies, and procedures.

Because choosing a strategic rationale for the next tactical action is a conscious act of creation, the responsible peacekeeper must support it. The exploring officer takes responsibility for the strategic choices of routes and objectives on his journey into the unknown. The routes and actions he takes have a direct impact on the outcomes he seeks. This ability must be created and nurtured always. Its hard work and hard work means an effort must be made to develop the necessary skills of observation utilizing all your senses and then combining these observations with the ability to make tactical judgments implicitly and explicitly considering time, and risk.

To win on the street you must think, act and continually explore the situation until you reach a successful outcome. Possessing the explorer mentality you not only recognize the normal patterns of conflict and behavior but you recognize and adapt to their opposites and buy yourself some critical time, time to choose a tactical option that’s effective and safe.

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.

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