Being simultaneously tactful and tactical

TACT is the root of both the words TACTful and TACTical, and as an acronym, TACT stands for Think, Aware, Courteous, and Tactical

Editor’s Note: Please be advised that the views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Pennsylvania State Police. Furthermore, we would like to express special appreciation for comments in the preparation of this article to Lt. Edward Murphy, Adjunct Instructor of Criminal Justice at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

There is no doubt that the training and use of interpersonal skills and situational awareness are essential to success and safety on the street. Over the years of teaching and looking into the eyes of the cadets, which registered polite attention but urgency to get back to their more immediate concerns like criminal and traffic law, it became clear there needed to be a means to teach this awareness, concepts and skills in a way that they would not get lost in this other content. It also became clear that in addition to 1900 pages of criminal and traffic law content (as well as tactical skills and fitness), information was presented on more than eighteen psychological and medical disorders and over thirty fundamental suggestions on how to handle face to face interactions.

It seemed important to have a way to both summarize the approaches, as well as, remind both cadets and officers to maintain a situational awareness and an effective approach to interpersonal engagements. The acronym TACT seems appropriate and useful, as in “using tact” in an interaction or acting TACT-fully.

The word TACT, of course, refers to the quality (and skill) of being able to interact with others in a productive manner by recognizing what is proper and appropriate behavior. Further, TACT is the root of both the words TACTful and TACTical, the full spectrum of police interactions. As an acronym, TACT stands for Think, Aware, Courteous, and Tactical.

The first T — Think — is the general reminder to “use one’s head” during a response. Think also refers to making use of the other three components of TACT; to Think about your Awareness, Courtesy and Tactical readiness.

The A refers to situational awareness. It is the need to integrate all the information available to an officer before and when arriving on scene. While some situations do not allow for “thoughtful analysis” of the situation, even here it is important to mitigate the impulsive behavior that can easily occur with a raging adrenaline dump. Action without a consideration of options and a back-up plan can be problematic. Awareness promotes a reasoned and appropriate response.

There are very few — if any — situations in which initial courtesy would aggravate matters and not have the potential to defuse more intense behavior. Being courteous is not inconsistent with being firm or presenting a command presence. If an officer’s courtesy is rebuked, that will:

A.) be obvious very quickly,
B.) provide valuable information about the subject’s state, and
C.) indicate that more direct and forceful action will likely be needed.

The last T refers to always having a tactical plan should the situation so warrant. Even with a subject who appears to respond to courtesy, an officer always needs to maintain an on-guard mindset with tactical action to back it up until a situation is totally secure or concluded.

TACT is in no way meant to minimize the importance or time that should be allotted for training a psychological knowledge base and interpersonal skills in police work; especially in such areas as interacting with special populations. A greater understanding of human behavior enhances the components of TACT and makes an officer more effective and secure.

Interestingly, cadets and trainees are very similar to another group of respected professionals — medical and surgical residents / doctors in training. Both cadets and residents are a highly-select group of individuals. Both have high forms of respective intelligence. Both have a duty to serve. Both can work in highly-stressful situations. Both make decisions and take actions that transform people’s lives. And residents, like cadets, while respectful of that “psychological stuff,” are also action-oriented and would rather be learning and practicing how to stick a medical device into some part of your body.

But the doctors, like graduated cadets, would come back after a year or two on the job being much wiser, experienced, and more respectful and appreciative of the frequency and importance of the psychological aspects of their work.

Beyond TACT, there is a specific behavioral science knowledge that is essential for a successful encounter and cadets and officers need that knowledge. It is important to know that sharing something about yourself may build rapport with a depressed individual, but will likely be manipulated by a borderline personality. Or, that the use of well-timed, appropriate humor can defuse a tense situation, but probably will inflame it if the subject has a paranoid disorder. Or, that a gentle touch on the shoulder can be reassuring to a person in crisis, but potentially threatening to an individual with a history of abuse. But, using TACT or approaching individuals TACTfully can be a blueprint for implementing any and all the skills and knowledge an officer possesses.

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