Deciding What Needs to Be Decided

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article.

Gordon Graham here and hello again! Today, we’re focusing on ethical decision-making. In the last article, I mentioned a decision-making tool I learned in graduate school called IRAC—Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion. IRAC worked for me as a brand-new sergeant, but it was not perfect, so I played with it quite a bit, thought about my past experiences and talked to veteran sergeants.

Eventually, I came up with an expanded IRAC—a 10-step decision-making process that would work for public safety personnel.

Here is a quick overview on this decision-making process (I will fill in the blanks in the next few articles):

  1. Identify and clarify the issue. If it is a preservation-of-life event, act immediately (#8). Short of that, identify what needs to be decided.
  2. Do I have time to think? If so, move on to #3. If not, hopefully you picked this up on your risk assessment and through constant training have learned how to best act in this situation.
  3. Can I handle this event? If so, move to #4. If not, get it to someone who can handle it and follow through to make sure it got done.
  4. What is the policy of our agency re: this event? If policy exists, follow the policy. If there is no policy, refer to the mission statement of your organization and make sure your action is consistent with this statement.
  5. What is our past practice in this type of event? You may not have handled this type of event before, but maybe someone in your organization has. Consistency is critical.
  6. What are the ethical issues involved in this event? We must be concerned not just about doing things right but doing the right thing right.
  7. What are the consequences of my actions? Smart people consider consequences before they occur.
  8. Make and implement your decision. Remember it is not too late to go back to #1 to make sure you are still headed in the right direction.
  9. Document as necessary why you did what you did.
  10. If you learned something new, share it with your peers.

So that is the Reader’s Digest version (for you young kids, the short version) of my decision-making process. If you want to print that out for a quick reference sheet, you can certainly do that, but I am going to drill down on each of the steps and give you some in-depth thoughts on how each of them play a role in making good decisions.

You cannot make the right decision if you are addressing the wrong issue.

Of course, it all starts with step one. The first step in making a good decision that will survive the test of time is identifying what needs to be decided! It’s the most important consideration of my 10-step process.

What is the primary mission of a cop today in America? Scratch that—what is the primary mission of a firefighter, or a paramedic, or anyone in public safety? When I pose this query in my live programs very few people get it right.

The primary mission of everyone in public safety is “preservation of life.” If you are ever being interviewed by the media or testifying in court and someone asks you what your job is all about, you can nail it by saying “preservation of life.”

Victims’ lives, suspects’ lives, witnesses’ lives, bystanders’ lives and cops’ lives—our primary mission is preservation of life. Everything else is secondary! Liability is secondary, embarrassment is secondary, criminal issues are secondary—we are “all in” on preservation of life.

So if it is a “preservation of life” issue, you immediately skip to step 8 of the process and act to preserve life. But most of what we do falls short of preservation of life. When it is not an instant preservation-of-life issue, we then must ask, “What is this incident all about? What is going on here? What am I being asked to do?”

You cannot make the right decision if you are addressing the wrong issue. You must first identify and clarify the issue (in homage to the “I” in IRAC) by asking clarifying questions as necessary and really listening to what is being communicated to you.

Step 1 is the most important—and simultaneously the most difficult—part of the decision-making process. If you successfully navigate step 1, steps 2 through 10 fall into place nicely. But step 1 is the most important part of the process: deciding what needs to be decided.

I am getting near the end of my allotment of words for this piece (I went over by 300 words in the last writing and making Madame Editor angry is not conducive with long life) so I will be wrapping this up with a huge concern I have.


I will explore this in greater detail in our next writing, but here is a teaser: RPDM (recognition-primed decision-making) is your friend most of the time. But it can also set you up for a very nasty phenomenon known as “cognitive lock.”

What this is and how it impacts decision-making will be the focus of my next article. Until then, please read the “Less Wrong Wiki” entry (seriously) for Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.

Gordon Graham

GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

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