Critical thinking: An essential police tool
Policies and procedures provide guidelines for dealing with a variety of situations, but what about problems not neatly gift wrapped?
By Robert Whitson, PhD
As a police officer, have you ever asked yourself, “What the hell was I thinking?” Have you ever watched other officers, usually on the nightly news, and asked, “What the hell were they thinking?” During my 30 years as a police officer, a lot of people told me “what” to think, but nobody told me “how” to think. Nobody taught me critical thinking.
Police officers deal with problems every day. Officers are expected to demonstrate common sense, communication skills and interpersonal skills, all with an open mind free of bias. Policies and procedures provide guidelines for dealing with a variety of situations, but what about problems not neatly gift wrapped? Officers must use critical thinking for such situations. The following are five real-life examples.
1. You’re dispatched to a suicidal female who is on the phone with a crisis counselor. The female said she is alone in her apartment and has a gun.
Do you call SWAT? Do you evacuate other apartments? Do you yell for the female to come outside? Do you enter the apartment? Do you leave, which is a concept proposed in some jurisdictions?
Keep in mind, if somebody gets injured or dies, your every move will be dissected in retrospect. If you make a mistake, you may lose your job, get sued, or be prosecuted. In 2017, there were 47,173 suicides in the United States and about 1.4 million attempts. What will you do?
In this case, the officers who responded to the female’s apartment listened at the front door and didn’t hear anyone. The front door was unlocked. They quietly opened the door and heard the female talking in a bathroom. The bathroom door was open about one inch.
If they asked her to come out of the bathroom, it could turn into a barricaded subject, or suicide by cop. Realizing the female was distracted while talking to the counselor, and that most people who call a counselor for help don’t want to commit suicide, the officers knew they could take advantage of the element of surprise. One of the officers entered the bathroom and immediately grabbed the female before she could fire a gun. In this case, the plan worked, and nobody was hurt.
2. You attempt to stop a driver who may be driving under the influence. Instead of stopping, the vehicle speeds away. According to your pursuit policy, an officer must weigh the risk to life and property presented by the suspect if not immediately apprehended, compared to the risk to the public in pursuing the suspect.
An average of 355 persons were killed annually, from 1996 to 2015, during police pursuits.  If someone gets seriously injured or killed during your pursuit, your decision to engage in a pursuit will be second-guessed, with possible discipline, and the inevitable lawsuit will follow.
There are many variables to consider for this example. Is the driver a juvenile? Is the driver a senior citizen? What type of vehicle is involved? Variables include the volume of traffic, speed, the number of people in the suspect’s vehicle, type of area (residential, rural, city, business), type of roadway (number of lanes, highway, dirt/gravel, construction), traffic lights or signs, the weather (dry, wet, snow, ice), and time of day or night, etc.
No officer wants anyone, especially an innocent person, to be injured or killed during a pursuit. Yet it happens too often. What will you do? My recommendation is to end the pursuit or follow the suspect from a distance while considering arrest options if the suspect stops or returns home. What’s your decision?
3. You’re a detective. You obtained a search warrant for a residence to search for illegal drugs. Based on information from an informant, the suspect always keeps a gun close to him. The informant has never been inside the suspect’s home and the informant is afraid to buy drugs from the suspect. You plan to execute the search warrant at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday when the suspect should be asleep. Just before you execute the search warrant, you learn the suspect has his wife and two young children in his residence. What will you do?
Ask yourself this question, “What will the news media report if a child is hurt during the raid?" The headlines will read "Police Murder Child in Drug Raid Gone Wrong." I worked in the narcotics unit for six years. Drugs are not worth getting anyone killed, especially innocent children. In this case, the raid should be canceled until the children are out of the residence. You may consider using a ruse to get the suspect and/or children out of the residence, but don’t enter while they’re present.
4. You observe a person on the sidewalk in front of your police station. The person is taking videos of the police station, police employees going in and out of the building, police vehicles and personal vehicles of employees. What will you do?
YouTube is full of citizens who bait officers into violating their constitutional rights. Proceed with caution. First, do you have reasonable suspicion to believe a crime has occurred or is about to occur? If not, don’t contact this person. A person in public can legally videotape people and places in public. If you have reasonable suspicion, you can contact this person and ask for their name, but you better be sure you can justify reasonable suspicion. What if the person refuses to provide their name and/or an identification card? If you don’t have probable cause to arrest the person, walk away.
5. It’s a busy night and all officers are on calls. You’re dispatched to an apartment building about a man with a gun. Upon arrival, the victim says a resident of the apartment building appeared intoxicated, was screaming in the pool area and was carrying a rifle. The victim told the suspect to be quiet and go inside. The suspect told the victim, “Shut up or I’ll shoot you.” No shots were fired, but the suspect could be arrested for felony menacing. You go to the suspect’s apartment. No lights are on and you can’t hear any noise inside the apartment. The suspect appears to be asleep. What are the risks of trying to contact the suspect at that time, compared to the risks of contacting the suspect at a later date? What will you do?
In this case, I decided to take a wait-and-see approach. Why wake the suspect and possibly force a barricaded situation? The victim was advised to call 9-1-1 if the suspect left his apartment again. Two days later, an arrest warrant was obtained for the suspect and the suspect was arrested without incident.
Characteristics of critical thinkers
According to critical thinking experts Richard Paul and Linda Elder, “Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking.”
Rosalindo Alfaro-LeFevre  lists the characteristics of critical thinkers, shortened and summarized for this article:
- Active thinkers: Double-check the reliability of information.
- Fair, open-minded and flexible: Aware of their perceptions, values, beliefs and biases, but willing to consider other perspectives and change priorities as needed.
- Empathetic: Put themselves in the position of other people. Understand the thoughts and feelings of others from their perspective.
- Independent thinkers: The ability to reach decisions by themselves and take responsibility for those decisions, instead of depending on others to make decisions.
- Curious, humble and honest: Constantly trying to find the truth and resolve problems. Admitting mistakes and trying to correct them. Always evaluating performance and striving to improve it.
- Proactive: Anticipating problems and acting before they occur.
- Organized and systematic: Examining information, making decisions and trying to solve problems systematically.
- Logical: Seeking facts, research, and making evidence-based decisions.
- Team player: Willing to collaborate and work toward a common goal.
When people in America call the police for help, they expect professional, educated and qualified officers to help them. And, in this era, Americans are quick to report (via the news media and social media) unprofessional, unethical and/or illegal police behavior. Officers who deploy critical thinking will benefit themselves, their agencies and the public, and in doing so, may stay off the evening news for making a mistake.
Take the active supervision challenge: Critical thinking
Critical thinking engages your brain to comprehend, assess, analyze and process information in a way that improves your decision-making
1. Reaves B. Police vehicle pursuits, 2012-2013. Retrieved from the Bureau of Justice Statistics website.
2. Alfaro-LeFevre R. Critical thinking in nursing: A practical approach. Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders, 1999.
About the author
Robert Whitson was a police officer in Boulder, Colorado, for 30 years, working a variety of assignments. He taught criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in Denver for seven years while working on a PhD in criminal justice. He presently teaches for a private university in Florida, where he has taught criminal justice for seven years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.