Photo courtesy of Amaury Murgado.
Law enforcement is filled with decision-making. Some decisions are made in split seconds and others take days if not weeks to complete. It's something that the job demands and expects us to get right. We are expected to maintain a gold standard but we don't receive gold standard training.
Yes, you are shown the criminal and civil statues that you will be working with. And yes, you have to know your own agency's policy and procedures manual. And yes, you have senior officers around you that you can go to for help. But is that enough to handle the depth and scope of your decision-making? I think not. You need to go deeper in your understanding of this near art form. To improve your own skills, you need to learn about decision-making traps and how to use this knowledge to your advantage.
Types of Decisions
I break down decision-making into tactical and strategic decisions. Tactical decisions are those that require a "right now" type of answer. These decisions deal with the immediate, give you little time to process, and are the "in your face" type of issues. Strategic decisions are those that require a "not now but later" type of answer. These decisions are more deliberate, give you plenty of time to process, and are the "soon to be in your face" type of issues. A good visualization is comparing the decision-making differences between a road patrol sergeant and a detective sergeant.
A road patrol sergeant makes a hundred decisions a day, whereas a detective sergeant may make a hundred decisions a month. The road sergeant handles tactical decisions that revolve around in-progress calls. The detective sergeant handles strategic decisions that revolve around calls that are over with. The road sergeant has to act now, whereas the detective sergeant can act later. This comparison sets up the premise for my discussion. I will be focusing on the more strategic side of the house and leave the tactical side for another day. In other words, how do you make good decisions when you have time to do so?
The first step is to have some type of methodology. In the book "Decision Traps," by J.E. Russo and Paul J.H. Schoemaker, the authors detail a four-point process for how to arrive at a decision. I have had this book since it first came out in 1989, and though there is an updated version called "Winning Decisions," I've kept the first edition in play as it has served me well. Whenever I am presented with an involved task, big project, or major decision at work, I refer to it often. As detailed in the book, there are four key elements to making any decision that you should become familiar with.
Framing: Framing is a way of creating the question to be answered. The question is always more important than the answer; ask the right question and you get the right answer. The authors explain that "good decision-makers think about the viewpoint from which they and others will look at the issue and decide which aspects they consider important and which they do not."
In my opinion, this is the most important part of decision-making as most mistakes occur in the early stages of solving the problem. It's these early mistakes that eventually steer you off course and into a faulty outcome.
Gathering Intelligence: This means finding facts and creating reasonable estimates and parameters. Information is just information until it's processed, filtered, and corroborated. Processed information therefore turns into useful intelligence. Not everything we know applies to our situation and not everything we think we know is correct. The better the facts are, so goes the decision. Don't ever skimp on doing your homework as it will hurt you in the long run. It’s like buying a used car; know the current price point trends on the model you are hunting for and you won't get ripped off at the dealership.
Coming to Conclusions: The authors stress that "sound framing and good intelligence don't guarantee a wise decision." You still need a systematic approach to making your decisions rather than flying by the seat of your pants. You have to create a structure filled with checks and balances to help you along the way. Decisions don't just come to you, you fight to create them.