Developing Decision-Making in Police Training: The Bad, the Good, and the "Sexy"

Judgment and decision-making are pretty much the top two cognitive capabilities a law enforcement professional must possess. Fortunately, judgement decision-making ability can be trained—and possibly even fixed.

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Late last month, it was reported that two recruits with the New York Police Department have been suspended for allegedly engaging in a sex act in a restroom at the department's College Point training academy.

According to the New York Post, the couple—a 26-year-old male and a 21-year-old female—had joined the department in July and have been said to be in an ongoing relationship for some time.

One NYPD official who declined to be identified told the newspaper, "This is what we're recruiting now" while another bemoaned that recruits these days "don't fear or care about getting caught breaking the rules."

Stand-up comedian Ron White popularized the phrase "You can't fix stupid"—he even tried to trademark it—with his comedy special of the same name. This isn't to say that the two individuals involved in this incident are "stupid" but if they did do what they are alleged to have done, they definitely behaved stupidly. At the very least, they exercised extremely bad judgment, and demonstrated dreadfully decision-making skills.

Unfortunately for these two, judgement and decision-making are pretty much the top two cognitive capabilities a law enforcement professional must possess. Fortunately for everybody else who hasn't yet done something this ill-advised, judgement decision-making ability can be trained—and possibly even fixed.

Making Bad Decisions

Countless "controversial" incidents involving police become news articles—and topics for talking heads on television—because a segment of the mainstream media seeks to cultivate controversy even when none actually exists. The narrative of "hands up don't shoot" was an invention of the imagination—an attempt to "blame" an officer for the behavior of a violent subject.

But there are times when something involving the police goes wildly off the rails entirely because one or more officers made one or more bad decisions. The most notorious example in recent memory is when now-former Officer Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department knelt on the neck of a prone suspect in custody for a period of nearly ten minutes, even at one point fending off emergency medical technicians who had arrived at the scene and sought to render aid.

Three other now-former MPD officers—Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng, and Thomas Lane—were found to have willfully failed to intervene in the incident in time to save the life of the offender in custody.

An argument could be made that the poor decision-making of those four officers in Minneapolis did more damage to the law enforcement profession in ten minutes than hundreds of officers' bad decisions have done in decades.

An argument could be made that the May 2020 death of George Floyd directly led to—or at the very least, exacerbated—the current staffing crisis in policing. That very same staffing crisis has apparently led to statements from academy staff such as, "This is what we're recruiting now."

Making Good Decisions

Having good decision-making abilities is an alchemy of sorts—a combination of nurture and nature. People who are naturally "good" tend to make good decisions simply because they inherently wish to see good outcomes—everyone makes mistakes of course, but that's not a bad rule of thumb.

However, good decision-making is also something that can be—and in police training must be—developed and improved upon. There are a few schools of thought on this.

One is Rational Choice Theory (RCT) in which people are taught to gather all available information, make a list of possible actionable options, and compare those choices against a set of measurable parameters (values). Another is Recognition-Primed Decision-Making (RPD) in which people compare possible actions against known outcomes from past experiences (either personal experience or historical example).

Opportunities to develop decision-making are abundant in police training. Most notably, decision-making is the focus during use-of-force scenarios and emergency vehicle operations training, but there are also the subtle moments trainers can use to emphasize making well-informed and well-intentioned decisions.

For example, the de-escalation of a potentially volatile situation is often the outcome of a series of informed decisions based on using active listening to gather intelligence, and then applying analytical thinking to the problem. Active listening, analytical thinking, and problem solving are all skills that can be taught and improved upon through training.

Return to New York

Returning briefly to the incident involving the two young NYPD officers, it merits mention that what two consenting adults do in their off-time and in the privacy of their own home (or homes) is entirely their business. Their behavior on agency property, however, becomes a matter that necessarily—and inevitably—is agency business. Their suspension is well earned, and may eventually lead to their outright dismissal from the program.

At least they are consenting adults... unlike the 26-year-old recruit with the Memphis Police who in 2010 was fired following his arrest for making a sex tape with a 17-year-old girl.

There is, after all, an important distinction between carnally stupid and criminally stupid.

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