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Street Survival® Insights: When/Then Thinking


We all use when/then thinking at one time or another, and often we don’t even realize we are doing it. Essentially, it is a productive form of daydreaming. Imagine you are on patrol or performing normal duties. You think to yourself, “What do I do when I conduct my next traffic stop?” Or “When I approach the vehicle and the driver produces a firearm in a threatening manner, then, I am going to draw my firearm, move tactically and engage the threat.” Notice, it is never, “What if I conduct my next traffic stop” or “What if the driver produces a weapon in a threatening manner.” It is always when.


This is the beginning stage of positive visualization drills because it is setting the foundation for more than just when/then thinking. It is also a workout for your brain. The mind is the most dangerous weapon you bring to any violent encounter. When/then thinking, visualization and guided imagery drills all work toward strengthening your mind. By applying when/then thinking, you actually draw a blueprint and create a file internally of your actions and reactions. This reduces lag time and hesitation, two very important factors in a violent encounter.

However, if you replace when with if, the lag time and hesitation will undoubtedly become a deterrent for you and your ability to succeed. When means you are expecting the encounter and are prepared for it. If means you are not sure it will occur, or even if you think it may. You are improperly preloading your mind.

Prior to reading articles, conducting my own research and eventually teaching the principles of when/then thinking, I discovered I have been utilizing this technique for years. Twelve of my last 26 years in law enforcement have been spent working in narcotics, five years as a detective and seven years as a sergeant. Every time we plan for a narcotics purchase or takedown “buy and bust”-type operation, we plan in advance for the rip or robbery. That plan is when/then thinking in action: when the undercover detective gets robbed, then the cover team will rescue the detective. I have used an agent rescue drill twice in my 12 years of narcotics; that is twice in several hundred narcotics purchases and tactical operations. Though it may sound like slim odds for something to go wrong, it only has to happen once for tragedy to occur. Being prepared mentally for a rip or robbery during a narcotics investigation definitely reduces and/or eliminates lag time and hesitation, and increases the confidence of the entire team.

Here are some key points to assist you with this simple but effective technique. First, it is always when, not if. Preload the mind to expect the unexpected. Second, then what are you going to do? Visualize yourself performing the tactic with a proper follow through. Finally, see yourself win. This is a very powerful and effective way to prepare for a violent and/or non-violent encounter, from responding to silent alarms to stopping an active shooter.

How do you begin to train your mind? Find some quiet time that would allow you to mentally practice uninterrupted when/then thinking. This does not need to be as long as full blown visualization drills; only five minutes are needed. Once you have the time, create a when/then scenario in your mind. Begin with an active shooter while you are off-duty. Choose a location – a high school, college, shopping mall or restaurant in your area – know it, see it and familiarize yourself with it. Every one of these locations has been the target of an active shooter incident in this country. Create the incident in your mind and see how you will react to it and what you will do. Consider everything from recognizing and engaging the threat, to identifying yourself as a police officer to officers responding to the critical incident. What you would do if your spouse or children were with you? What if you or someone else is wounded? You need to when/then everything; expect the unexpected and respond appropriately in your mind, so when it does happen, you will have increased your chances of success because you are ready!

As always, one of the best ways we can honor those law enforcement officers who have lost their lives protecting the innocent is to learn, to train and to be ready to engage any threat we may face. Honor those brave men and women, so that their lives are not lost in vain. Statistics tell us that it is not if , but when – and it only takes one basic mind training drill to make a difference. Stay safe!

About the Author
Raimondo “Ray” DeCunto has been a law enforcement officer since 1981 and is employed with the Pineallas County SO (Florida) as a sergeant in the Narcotics Division. He is currently involved in the development and instruction of courses involving basic and advanced tactical drug operations, tactical maritime and SWAT operations. Ray is also an instructor for the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminars®.