The importance of incorporating decision-making in law enforcement training

In addition to tactical training, incorporating decision-making skills into law enforcement training is critical for safety and success


Training: We know it plays an integral role in law enforcement operations, professionalism and community relations – so it’s important to get it right. Is our training preparing officers for the reality of the tense, dynamic and stressful situations they will face? On that same plane of thinking, is our training preparing officers not just to face these situations but to make good decisions when they do? It’s one thing to train officers on tactics and entirely another to train officers on deciding when and how to use those tactics.

As we continue to see high-profile use of force cases, mental health crisis responses and other incidents, we may be led to ask the question, “Was the officer’s training adequate?” It’s important for law enforcement leaders to analyze incidents within their departments, as well as incidents from across the country, to determine whether training is leading to good decisions and appropriate behavior in various high-risk situations. Policy can inform us and tactical training can guide us, but while responding to these dynamic and challenging calls, officers must be able to fall back on practiced decision-making skills.

In a recent webinar, Chief (Ret.) Mike Ranalli and Laura Scarry discuss the role of training in police reform and decision-making, as well as the importance of maintaining current and effective training.

It's critical to build concepts, tactics and practices into training that officers will potentially face when responding to calls and serving the community.
It's critical to build concepts, tactics and practices into training that officers will potentially face when responding to calls and serving the community. (Photo/Pixabay)

What Does Your Training Consist Of?

What is a "training artifact"? Something outdated. Something ineffective. Something that creates an unnecessary risk for your officers, your agency and your community. Some of these artifacts may be obvious, but others can be more subtle. For example, consider what skill is most trained in your department. If you’re like many other law enforcement agencies, it’s likely related to firearms. How do you train on firearms? The least expensive and seemingly most efficient way to conduct firearms training is through static point shooting. While static point shooting is vital to help officers build foundational skills, it doesn’t provide the full picture of what officers can and will face in real-world situations. Going beyond static point shooting to mimic the more dynamic circumstances – stress and all – of responding to calls can be extremely beneficial to strengthen officers tactical and decision-making skills.

It’s critical to build concepts, tactics and practices into training that officers will potentially face when responding to calls and serving the community. Officers will not be faced with perfect conditions and, when that happens, officers experience high levels of adrenaline and stress – shouldn’t their training reflect that? Solid training should include stress mitigation practice. If training has provided officers with a picture of what such situations look and feel like, they will be better prepared to make good decisions under stress if and when the time comes.

Action vs. Reaction

Human beings cannot react as quickly as they act. This fact is important for all officers, leaders and trainers to understand. Before we are able to act, we need to process our surroundings and make a decision. While this happens very quickly, the initial actor has an advantage because their entire mental process is already complete before the reactor can begin the process in response. This is where good training comes in. Is it possible to avoid such a situation altogether? Good decision-making may keep an encounter from escalating. When that isn’t possible, are your officers prepared to respond in kind?

It’s important to address the reactionary gap through solid preparation in training and communication. Policing is a fact-based industry. We can help officers prepare for the reality of the reactionary gap by knowing and teaching the facts and developing tactical, evidence-based training around those facts. For example, from 2008 to 2017, 78% of officer assaults were “personal weapons” (hands/feet), with an increased likelihood of injury to the officer. Consider how your department trains officers on frisks, defensive tactics and other close interactions with suspects: How might you incorporate this statistic into various training scenarios to encourage critical thinking and good decision-making in stressful, dynamic situations? When officers respond to calls with a rightly framed mindset, knowing what to expect, they can make better decisions and take the right, legitimate action.

How are you ensuring your officers don’t just know the tactics, but also how and when to use them? How do you incorporate decision-making into your training programs? Are there “training artifacts” you need to eliminate? Evaluate your training and determine if you are simply teaching your officers to do things, or if you’re teaching them how to make good decisions.

Watch the on-demand webinar, Training "Artifacts": The Role Training – or Lack of Training – Plays in Poor Decisions, to learn more.

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