The Decision-Making Process in Police Organizations

Decision-making in law enforcement is as dynamic as the profession and there is no single process that will work in all situations. The course of action undertaken by an officer involved in a critical incident must be made quickly, under pressure, and often in isolation.

Line-level decisions are made instinctually, based on the individual’s training and experience. Decisions made by command-level officers, on the other hand, are more apt to be made in a collaborative environment, after extensive research, and under flexible deadlines. These decisions are contemplative and draw upon the individual’s education and experience. Whether the decision is made to quell a crisis or serve an administrative function, the immediate and long-term repercussions of these decisions can reverberate throughout the community the officer serves, as well as the agency in which he or she works. Law enforcement professionals have an enormous responsibility and obligation to make ethical, legal and knowledgeable choices that safeguard the public’s trust in our abilities to establish law and order in our communities.

Administratively speaking, decisions rarely need to be made in a vacuum. I have the incredible good fortune to work with a Command Staff that has enormous respect for each other’s opinions and we all tend to come at problems from different angles. If I were pressed to label our personalities, the Chief is our visionary. He often identifies a problem before it is fully formed. He thinks aloud as he chews on a problem, and we, as his staff, have to recognize that his words are unedited, global and in their infancy. He relies upon us to nurture his thoughts through their adolescence until they mature into a cohesive plan. The Operations Captain is all about strategy and tactics. He looks at the nuts and bolts of a problem and grounds us. The Chief and Captain often tease me that I’m the kinder, gentler of the two Captains, and for the most part, they’re probably correct. While like any administrator I’m charged with safeguarding the department, I’ve always been concerned with how a decision will impact the individuals involved. I’ve always considered the human element involved in decision-making.

This works for us—especially when we disagree. My Chief has had to mediate more than a few knockdown, drag-out arguments between his captains, but when the decision is reached and the door opens, we present a unified front. In the end, healthy (and respectful) debate allows any problem to be examined in greater detail. More than once I have challenged someone to back up their viewpoints with facts and had them change my mind. Administrators must not fear being wrong. A bad decision defended beyond reason can inflict incredible damage upon an agency. Collectively, our input makes arriving at a viable decision an easier task and one that yields far better results.

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Often bad decisions only surface when someone lodges a complaint either against an officer’s conduct or a procedural process that seemed like a good idea on paper but resulted in unintended consequences upon implementation. An environment that fosters open communication and an ability to fail forward will result in corrective processes that will strengthen the agency.

So how can making a bad decision result in a stronger agency? It gets back to that whole willingness to be wrong. It takes strength and humility to admit being wrong. Considering the number of decisions made on a daily basis, administrators have a lot of opportunity to mess up. It takes courage in a paramilitary organization to approach someone higher in rank and suggest that something could be done better, or that something is flat-out wrong. It is every bit as important for officers to trust their command staff as it is for administrators to trust members of the department. Alexander Pope (1688-1744) said it best, “No one should be ashamed to admit they are wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that they are wiser today than they were yesterday.”

Police officers and administrators are called upon to make myriad decisions each and every day of their careers. Whether made individually or collaboratively, the best decisions often start in the heart, process through the mind, and fulfill a vision. Education, training, ethical motivations, liability, precedent—all these aspects are consciously or unconsciously considered during the decision-making process. Open communication, trusted advisors and knowing that even an honest mistake can be defended and changed leads to an environment where people feel comfortable deviating from the “Yes Man” mentality and offer true and valuable input into a decision-making process.

Originally published in Police Administration, 3rd Edition by Larry K. Gaines and John L. Worrall, 2012.

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