Critical thinking is a skill. Decision making is a skill. Problem solving is a skill. Are you teaching these important skills starting at the academy level and then continuing to build them throughout people’s careers? When I talk about building on them throughout people’s careers, I am talking about micro dosing this training and doing decision training exercises weekly. I have written before about the power of 10 minutes of training a day. Decision training is something that needs to be built into this training. Decision training needs to be done with everyone, of all ranks in the agency, not just the frontline personnel.
Why? Because if you look at every single law enforcement encounter the skills that are critical in helping shape the outcome are critical thinking, decision making and problem solving. While we do not control the ability of the other parties involved in the call to think critically and make good decisions, we can often influence their thinking, and we always control our thinking and the decisions that we make.
I recently listened to an interview on The Emergency Mind podcast with Tommy Short, a former NCAA Division 1 basketball referee turned high performance coach. He mentioned that in a college basketball game a referee will have to make 300 to 500 decisions. It got me to thinking about how many decisions the average law enforcement profession makes in a shift. Certainly, far more than 500.
Reflect for a minute on the criticisms leveled at law enforcement, by law enforcement, following a high-profile incident where things “went bad”. The criticisms are almost always, if not always, about decision making and critical thinking of the involved officers and incident commanders. Remember that we need to be cautious about judging the quality of the decisions based solely on the outcome, but the decisions are usually what we are critical of.
Now reflect for a minute about the high-profile incidents that had a “successful” outcome. What people often praise is the decision making and critical thinking skills of the involved officers and commanders.
You might be thinking, “Wait a minute Willis, what I am usually critical of, or what I praise are the actions or inactions of the officers and / or command personnel.” Ok, but what determines those actions are the decision making, critical thinking and problem-solving skills of the involved law enforcement professionals.
Yes, skills, tactics, and equipment are important. What is more important however, is the ability to think critically, make decisions in tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving situations and solve problems on the fly. It is those skills that allow people to use the skills, tactics, and equipment effectively.
While there are similarities between calls, every call brings elements of novelty. You cannot teach people tactics for every possibility. You can teach principles and concepts. You can teach critical thinking, decision making and problem solving. You can, but are you?
“Are you training your people for critical thinking, or for compliance?”
Every time there is a high-profile incident with a “less desirable” outcome the immediate call is for more training on that topic. More training in dealing with the mentally ill, more training in responding to an active killer, more training in __________________ (fill in the blank). While I am a fan of well thought out and effectively delivered training, the knee jerk reaction of bringing everyone in to do another block of training, thinking that will fix the problem, is a flawed strategy. Another block of one-off training for a specific event rarely results in actual learning and retention of the content and the ability to recall and apply it in the future. Some of these events, while being high risk and high consequence events, are still very rare.
Critical thinking, decision making and problem solving are skills officers use all day, every day. What are you doing to help them improve the quality of their thinking, decision making and problem solving? Just because they do a pretty good job already, does not mean they cannot get better with purposeful and deliberate practice.
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