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NTOA: Make better decisions using these key concepts

They are meant for daily and critical decision-making and apply to officers, supervisors and managers in patrol and special operations

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SWAT officers review the safety priorities before a training exercise.

Greg Friese

Lt. David Pearson teaches a set of foundational decision-making concepts for law enforcement for building scenarios, responding to emergencies and debriefing incidents. A full room of tactical officers at the National Tactical Officers Association conference in September 2022 learned the first five of those concepts in an informative and engaging session led by Pearson.

The five (of a total of 20) concepts taught in this session were:

  1. Identity
  2. Soft skills
  3. Safety priorities
  4. De-escalation
  5. The OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop

Pearson’s concepts originate in less-lethal instruction and are foundational to an officer’s mindset, philosophy and tactical considerations. The concepts are meant for daily and critical decision-making and apply to officers, supervisors and managers in patrol and special operations.

Through lots of examples, Pearson showed how the concepts can be used to navigate all critical incidents, including suicidal calls and crowd-management events.

Here are the five concepts Pearson taught to NTOA attendees in the first of four sessions.

1. Identity

Pearson described identity as the importance of knowing who you are, what drives you and why you come to work every day. The warrior, guardian and sheepdog metaphors are common ways for law enforcement officers to self-identify or be identified.

Pearson proposed a new identity, “the way of the Jedi,” an identity between warrior and guardian. In the Jedi identity officers are assessed on standards, not opinions. They adhere to a learning culture that holds them accountable. In this identity officers are not perfect and learn from their mistakes. When a peer makes a mistake, a Jedi shows grace, understanding and compassion.

“A huge part of the Jedi metaphor is to mentor,” Pearson said to explain the importance of coaching and mentoring. “My challenge to you is, who are you intentionally mentoring in your agency?”

Finally, a Jedi balances soft skills and hard skills, which helps reduce the swing between warrior and guardian. Conflict resolution and active listening should be practiced just like hard skills.

[Read more: Why being a Jedi may be better than being a warrior or guardian]

2. Soft skills

The public expects law enforcement officers to treat them fairly. Pearson explained that mistreatment often begins in the department culture recruits learn in the police academy. “It’s an unintended consequence of how we train cops,” Pearson said.

“All skills are perishable; you need to practice the soft skills just like you practice the hard skills,” he added.

Some of the soft skills that need to be practiced include:

  • Decision-making
  • Coping with stress
  • Mood management
  • Wellness

Pearson broadly defined wellness to include financial, physical, mental and spiritual components.

3. Safety priorities

In tactical incidents, there are four safety priorities, which in order are hostages, innocents/civilians, all law enforcement and suspects or subjects.

“I think this is the most powerful concept to understand. This will tell you how to act with a suicidal subject, how to de-escalate a subject, how to move forward or backward,” Pearson said.

Putting these priorities in order has to do with who is in the most jeopardy and who can control or change their environment. “Safety priorities are used to make hard decisions easy,” Pearson said.

Pearson implored attendees to educate their communities about the priorities to help the public better understand what police are doing and why. He gave several examples of the safety priorities in action, including active-shooter incidents, suicidal subjects and crowd control.

4. De-escalation

De-escalation, according to Pearson, is a complete concept, not just a tool that stands on its own. De-escalation needs to be paired with safety priorities and other tactical concepts.

Pearson teaches that de-escalation has three parts. Managing your own behavior, often before the call, is the first. The second part of de-escalation is the conflict that exists within a department. Internal disagreement in the department or between the department and other stakeholders often causes conflict that needs de-escalation and resolution.

The third part is the de-escalation that happens on a call. The class reviewed several scenarios and incidents to show the connection between de-escalation and the safety priorities. Learning from these incidents and bringing these concepts back to attendees’ departments was a refrain Pearson repeated throughout.

After watching a video Pearson asked, “Could this happen at your place? What would you like your department to do differently?”

5. OODA loop

Observe, orient, decide, act – known as the OODA loop – is an information-processing system that originated in fighter pilot instruction.

Sight is the top sense for observation, and the key is to slow down to better identify cues that will help an officer to make good decisions. “When we go fast, we limit this ability to observe,” Pearson said. In addition, Pearson explained the importance of learning what to look for to make efficient and effective observations.

“Orient[ation] is the database phase,” Pearson said. Training and scenarios put knowledge into an officer’s database to compare against observations they gather during an actual incident. Orienting is also learning to position to the threat using cover and concealment.

“Decisions need to be based in law, policy and ethics,” Pearson said. Use of force, search and seizure and pursuit law and policy need to guide decisions. Decisions should also be simple so others can understand and follow – the KISS (“keep it simple, stupid!”) principle.

OODA is a circular process. Action starts the process over. “Act decisively, assess critically,” Pearson said. “If you make a wrong decision, fix it.”

After watching and discussing a subject-with-a-knife call, Pearson described the importance of questioning your plan. “When someone tells me a plan, I ask them what bad can happen,” Pearson said.

Learn more

The remaining top 20 tactical concepts were continued in three subsequent NTOA sessions.

To learn more about tactical concepts, decision-making and leadership, check out these Police1 resources.

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on Police1, FireRescue1, Corrections1, EMS1 and Gov1. Greg has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, paramedic and runner. Greg is a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Ask questions or submit article ideas to Greg by emailing him at and connect with him on LinkedIn.