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Answering situational questions in police promotional examinations

If situational essays (or oral board questions) are on your next promotional examination, remember to explain the organizational rationale behind what you write or say

I receive quite a few e-mails from Police1 Members who have questions about responding to oral board or essay questions which are situational in nature. In almost every case, the person creating the test establishes a scenario involving some type of emergency situation such as an officer involved shooting, police chase resulting in the death of a pedestrian, etc. In order to force the candidate to take command and answer specifically what they would do, the directions typically indicate that higher ranking officers are sick, away attending a conference, or handling another emergency. An example follows:

You are Sergeant Paul Jenkins in the Anywhere Police Department assigned to the patrol division and working from 1600 to 2400 hours on a Saturday evening in July. You are the acting shift commander — Lieutenant Johnson, the shift commander, is not working due to a death in his family and Captain Fleming, the Patrol Division commander, is attending a conference in Florida. Patrol division resources are normal for the Anywhere Police Department. There is one other Sergeant working in the patrol division and the traffic division has a Sergeant and four officers assigned to a special speed enforcement detail. Detective division staffing is normal for the Anywhere PD on a Saturday evening.

At 1610 hours you receive a call from Sergeant Johnson in the communications division that a bank robbery has been reported in the downtown area and shots have been fired inside the bank. Information received from first responding officers indicate that an off duty police officer has been shot and between four and six armed suspect are holding between 12-14 hostages.

If this were an essay question, you would be directed to write a detailed analysis describing specifically how you would handle this situation as the acting shift commander. If this were an oral board question the scenario would be shortened, but contain the same essential elements.

Most candidates for promotion anticipate a question like this and are well prepared. They memorize and practice reciting a list of things they would do:

• respond to the scene
• take command of the incident
• direct all officers to change radio frequencies
• advise headquarters of the situation
• establish a command post
• establish an inner an outer perimeter
• the list goes on and on

If the rank being tested for is Police Sergeant and the candidate has excellent oral communication skills, unfortunately he or she would probably receive a high score on this question by reciting such a list. The oral panel (or test vendor) grading the essay exam might even have a checklist, and as long as the candidate covers every single step from a book on the promotional reading list, high marks are recorded.

Why did I say “unfortunately” in the above paragraph? Because other than providing an opportunity for the candidate to demonstrate excellent communication skills, reciting a list of “things to be done” doesn’t test for critical thinking skills, the ability of the candidate to prioritize, organizational integrity, planning, coordinating, directing, or any of the other dimensions for which a situational test question is intended. This is especially true of the higher ranks, such a Lieutenant, Captain, or Deputy Chief.

So, what am I looking for in the answer provided by the top candidates other than excellent communication skills? I’m looking for the candidates that explain “why” a specific action should or should not be taken. Said differently, I’m looking for a candidate who demonstrates excellent critical thinking skills. Critical thinking skills refer to organized and critical thought that facilitates good judgment. The best candidates demonstrate the ability to arrive at (and justify) conclusions; prioritize ideas; apply strategies for dealing with error, improbability, and ambiguity; and to value and access information.

When answering situational questions, you should explain why it’s important for the shift commander to respond to the scene and take command. Similarly, what is the organizational purpose of establishing a command post? Why change radio frequencies? Why establish an inner and outer perimeter, a staging area, to call for the Emergency Services team, and so on?

The depth of a candidate’s answer demonstrates a clear understand of the reasons behind the list, takes into account what happens if the bad guys decides to come out shooting or kill hostages while the list is being executed. I’m looking for a candidate’s ability to multi-task the things on “the list” and an explanation about why things may be done simultaneously — or in a specific order — because the situation dictates the necessity. I’m also looking for a candidate to tell me we don’t always have the luxury of waiting for a SWAT team and sometimes we have to go with what we have. We step in harms way! That is the oath we took.

If situational essays (or oral board questions) are on your next promotional examination, remember to explain the organizational rationale behind what you write or say and you will receive much higher marks than those who don’t. Lists are good, but unless they incorporate an in-depth analysis of planning, organizing, directing, staffing, coordinating, reporting, and sometimes budgeting (PODSCORB) someone else will be wearing stripes, bars, or stars — not you!

Larry the Jet

Career expert teaches how to prepare for and excel on police promotion examinations.