Decisions Made Easy

Can you defend your decision with your legal and ethical foundations? If not, prepare for discipline or problems.

Author Bio Harvey 1 Headshot

As a recruit on the street you will have to make thousands of decisions every day. You will have to remember academy training, then the FTO's suggestions, departmental policies, state law, and what else can I add to this decision matrix? Oh yeah, you also have to do this the way the sergeant likes it done. And you have senior officers riding the calls with you and they are adding scrutiny. So what is a new guy to do?


The good news is that experience is the best remedy for this. The more you do the work the easier it gets. Treat every day as a new learning experience and apply what you learn to the next call, the next day, and so forth. Trust me, it will get easier. But as I have told you before, you can't push it, nor create it; it will come with time.

If I could, I would make an experience pill or poultice to give you. I'm sure it would sell by the bucketful. But since there is no such thing, it's important to soak up as much as you can. This includes learning from the experiences of others. Don't just watch but observe the senior officers and listen to their experiences.

In the meantime, I fully understand the many elements that you must weigh in making decisions. Here is a traditional three-prong test I was taught that helped me and can help you make tough decisions on the job.


First of all, ask yourself, Is what I am about to do legal? Does it meet the constitutional, state, and local laws tests? What about departmental procedure policies and practices? Notice I said laws and policies, all plural. In just about any task you perform there are several policies that are applied, not just one or two. The same goes for the law. Are you operating under local law/codes or applying state laws to this case?

Bottom line on the legal question: Make sure what you are doing is legal within all boundaries.


Next, is the decision ethical or balanced? Go back to your academy training and FTO training on applying ethics to this decision. Is this within the mission and core values of the department? Does it match up to that poster on the roll call room wall, you know the one with an acronym for all of the good that your department strives to deliver? If it meets the mission and values, you should be almost there. Does it violate your oath of office? Finally I ask, Is this the decision you would make if your family were involved instead of an unknown citizen?

If the answer at any time is not in synch with these questions, stop and get a second opinion. Make it a trusted opinion. Ask your supervisor if you can do what you are thinking about.


The final prong is defensibility. Can you defend your decision with your legal and ethical foundations? If not, prepare for discipline or problems. How you can defend something is not often black and white. Don't say you did it because the law said you can do it. We all know we can do something, but often the local culture dictates otherwise. If you think you are that smart, then prepare your press statement. Think about it: Will your decision float on the six o'clock news, and how will your mommy feel when she hears what you have done?

After you apply this three-prong test you will probably be fine. It's not quite as simple as the way I described it, but it will work. Being a cop is a tough job, not just physically but also involving great mental anguish at times. Don't worry, it gets easier with time.

Train your brain as well as your body.


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