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Learn how to think in a crisis

Living by hard and fast rules can trap officers into bad decisions – instead teach them to think strategically


Training must recognize the hazards of interpreting the situation to fit a rule, rather than adapting rules (tactics) to the situation.

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

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By Mike Regan

Early training for traffic stop assaults taught us to use the space between the open patrol car driver’s door and the roof pillar when returning fire at an attacker. When research found rounds fired at police cars often end up in that space, training evolved to include other tactical options.

Early training for active shooter response mandated teams of four responding officers. Realizing that a set number for entry teams was too limiting, agencies changed the rule from “must have” a team of four to “when practical” have a team of four, thus allowing officers to make appropriate tactical decisions without breaking the rule.

Good cops are rule-followers. They want to know what the rules are and what the law says. Some training overteaches cops tactical rules – i.e., what to think, as opposed to the much more desirable how to think. What to think predicts a fixed situation, while how to think opens up a variety of possibilities and tactics. In the military, someone can be a perfect parade field commander, but once out of that stable environment, they may be unable to deal with the conflicting demands of command in a combat situation. Training must recognize the hazards of interpreting the situation to fit a rule, rather than adapting rules (tactics) to the situation.

When the rules steer you wrong

Understanding this dichotomy is especially important in a dynamic situation like an active shooter. If a cop needs to try something a rule says not to, they may face punishment if something goes wrong.

Here are some examples. A rule used to be, “If there is shooting, we must go in fast.” Another rule was, “If there is no shooting, we go slow.” If our purpose is protecting people, maybe we should go fast to protect people before they get shot. But the rule does not say that. Or, what if the shooting suddenly stops? We have only to look to recent history to see that police commanders get confused. I believe they were taught rules, or what to think, rather than strategy, or how to think.

This was a real event: An armed intruder held a school principal hostage, and two cops immediately entered the school and contained the intruder in an office. The cops asked for more police to come in and guard the hallways in case the suspect had accomplices or broke out of containment. The incident commander resisted the call for more personnel even though there were dozens of cops staged outside because there had been no shooting. The commander eventually let more cops enter the school, but later said, “The first two (cops) should not have gone in, because there was no shooting yet.” When I asked him, “Whose kid gets shot before we take fast action?” he had no answer. He was stuck on the rule learned in training.

While the commander was preoccupied with what the rule said, the cops were considering the how: “How do we control time and space?” Confining the intruder to one office and then filling the school with cops gave police control of the space. Doing this before the intruder could react gave police control of time.

Another real event: After an active shooter threat near a college, the on-scene commander told the boss, “A witness said the guy with the gun went into the dormitory, but we didn’t hear any shooting, so I did not let the (responding police) go in.” (Their rule was no shots, no entry.) The boss said, paraphrased due to adult language, “So it would be OK for a suspect to take hostages or slit the throats of students in the dorm as long as you heard no shots?”

If the commander had spent less time memorizing the rule and more time thinking about principles like time and space competition, he might have considered other actions – for example, sending a recon element in and using other cops to occupy space behind them, isolating potential victims from the threat.

It’s said that 80% of any crisis is the same, so we should “plan for the 80% and train for the 20%.” The 80% may include access, egress, perimeters, staging, medical, etc. It’s covered in good Incident Command System (ICS) training. However, police leaders, unlike the military, rarely train for the unknown 20%. Training should suggest, but not dictate, specific tactical actions for the unknown and dynamic 20%.

As an example, consider the ICS rule that when resources arrive, they must stage. But how should staging be used? Another ICS rule is no innocent people in the hot zone. Considering how instead of what may lead us to try staging after there are enough cops controlling the space to ensure no innocent people will be attacked. Arriving cops may be better used inside, shrinking the hot zone, rather than awaiting assignments outside – or, worse, waiting to hear shooting from within.

Consider public trust and how parents feel about large numbers of cops assembled outside when kids are still in a school with a threat. If parents get a cell call from their child saying, “I’m still in my classroom, but there is a cop here with us, and they say everything will be OK,” wouldn’t that increase faith the police know what they are doing?

How to develop the “how”

Here are some examples of how this might be done, taken from lieutenant schools I’ve run. You may want to start small; get your commanders in a room and kick ideas around. You can use cases from known history with twists to make trainees think.

Here’s one: “We get a report that a guy shot and killed his wife in a house in a wooded area with a two- lane highway nearby. He fled the scene on foot, as far as we know. Troopers/officers are searching the woods around the house. You are a lieutenant passing by from another assignment and assume the role of incident commander. What do you do and why?” Using a whiteboard, facilitators can keep track of the action through simple diagrams and notations.

After each order or action proposed by the IC, instructors and trainees ask, “Why?” “What are you trying to accomplish?” “What principle are you applying?” “What are your priorities now?” This develops how thinking, rather than “if suspect does A, the commander must do B.” For example, someone might ask, “Is there a medical plan for cops who get shot during the search?” and “What are you doing to protect motorists driving through the search area?”

After about five minutes, switch ICs and take the situation as it has developed during the discussion. In a small class, everyone gets a chance to be IC and also give input regarding the strategies used. A session should be no more than an hour, and at the end the instructor/facilitator should summarize the important strategic points. This type of training helps future commanders think about how they would accomplish certain actions and why they would make certain decisions rather than just regurgitating what a trainer once told them.

Instructors and facilitators must know what they are doing and how to think in a dynamic situation, or else it just becomes an incident command class. But without this how-to-think training, police leaders can become frozen when the tactical rules learned in the fixed environment don’t exactly apply to a problem they must solve. Cops on patrol know this and deal with it every day, but commanders are often too busy with budgets, personnel problems and other matters to train in dynamic incident command. When leaders are called to serve in that capacity, unless they are helped by NCOs, they too often flounder, freeze and fail. “Well-intentioned” is not enough. “Well-trained” must be the mantra.

In an active shooter or active threat situation, the advantage often goes to the attacker – the one who has the initiative. We must train to regain the initiative, take control and deprive the attacker of decision-making power. We can’t let his actions dictate our actions – rather, we must force him to react to our actions.

Another training example: You get a report from 9-1-1 that a bank teller received a note from a known customer that said, “We are being held hostage.” The customer then left the bank in a black Jeep with an unknown person. The customer has a residence in your patrol area. You are the shift commander. What do you do and why?

There are many right answers, and at each point facilitators should ask “Why?” and “What is the desired end state?” “What are you doing to control the time and space?” and “Are there innocents involved? Where are they? What are you doing to protect them?” I would add, “How common is this type of incident? What about going ‘big’ with a massive response? If it’s a false report, then it was good training.”

Here’s a final example, with more detail to show how involved the discussion might get.

Training scenario

It is 10:30 a.m. on Monday, September 26. You are a state police (SP) lieutenant and have just left an investigator and a couple of troopers at a domestic homicide scene on Route 32 near the mall. They are assisting sheriff’s personnel in a search for the homicide suspect. You are planning to get some topographical maps to assist.

At 10:31 a.m. you hear a 9-1-1 call for a “man with a gun” at the junior/senior high school. The school is about five miles east of mall and has approximately 300 students in attendance. The area where the school is located is patrolled by both the SP and sheriff.

The junior/senior high school and elementary school are on a campus near the southeast corner of the intersections of Route 9 and Route 32. The two schools are across a large parking lot from each other. The school campus is in a semi-rural area, with residential developments within walking distance.

What action do you take? Why?


At 10:32 a.m. a deputy is assigned the 9-1-1 call. You heard several patrols answer the initial poll, and they all were within 5–10 minutes of the school.

What action do you take? Why?


At 10:38 a.m. you arrive at the parking lot near the elementary school and meet an SP sergeant and a deputy. The sergeant tells you a contact team of four officers is in the high school attempting to locate the man with the gun but there is no other intelligence yet.

You are advised by communications that a riot response team was training 15 miles away, and all 30 members are now en route to your location. Their ETA is 10 minutes. The sheriff’s office has deputies and a supervisor en route to the school, and their ETA is 5–10 minutes. Troopers, NCOs and investigators are responding from other stations, and their ETA is 20–30 minutes.

The sergeant says they are ICS-trained, and the next thing is to set up a staging area for the arriving forces to lessen confusion.

What action do you take? Why?


The deputy is a combat veteran and says, “I think every arriving cop should be taking space inside, behind the contact team, so the threat(s) can’t have that space back.” The deputy continues, “Until every innocent person in the school can see a cop protecting them, then staging cops somewhere else is not appropriate.”

What action do you take and why? What are the principles behind your decision?


At 10:43 a.m., 9-1-1 advises a caller at the school is saying there were several shots a few minutes ago but it is quiet now.

Now what do you do and why?

Ask opinions, tap insights

One problem in this type of open-ended training is you may not have anyone in the leadership ranks who knows the answers or even the right questions. They may keep referring to a packaged training program that is poorly adapted to strategic thinking by commanders. You may have to ask the opinions of line officers who are used to meeting conflicting challenges despite inadequate guidance. Some officers have military command experience. Listen to their insights; you may discover hidden leadership you can bank on.

Of course, there are problems that have no clear-cut solutions, but how much better is it to try different ideas and strategies around the conference table or in the training room rather than under fire? Consider priorities and goals – do we want to catch the bad guy, protect the innocent, or both, and how does this affect our actions? Our opponent is often a planner but also impulsive and erratic. Let’s at least be smarter than them.

To earn the trust of our communities, we must be good at our jobs. To start, every police leader should read Charles “Sid” Heal’s book, “Sound Doctrine.” Then we must continually examine and adapt our training to ensure we teach not just what, but also how to think in a crisis.

About the author

Mike Regan is continually seeking to improve how police can protect their public. He retired from the New York State Police and is now a part-time police officer. He can be reached at