Decision-Making in Public Safety: Blink or Think?

by | February 17, 2021

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

Gordon Graham here again. Thanks for taking the time to read these ramblings regarding “real” risk management. Please note the modifier in the prior sentence—real risk management. I differentiate that from the nonsense I see in too many organizations where the words “risk management” get lip service without a commitment to fully implement a comprehensive approach to managing risk in their operations.

As we continue in this series of articles, I would like to get you thinking about two great books: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and Think by Michael LeGault. If you are a reader, I commend both books to you without reservation.

I love reading anything that Gladwell writes. He is a fascinating storyteller and weaves practical lessons into his words. Blink is a great read built on the premise that your brain has a unique ability to make split-second decisions and most of these decisions will end up being good ones.

Shortly after I read Blink, I picked up LeGault’s book, Think. LeGault has a different perspective. The message I took from his book is summarized on the cover: “Why critical decisions can’t be made in the blink of an eye.” Perhaps that’s meant as a bit of a dig against Gladwell, but LeGault’s point is well taken.

Let’s refer again to the risk/frequency matrix, paying particular attention to the top left box.

core critical tasks in public safety

What do you do when you have discretionary time when confronting a high-risk situation? You use this time to think, asking yourself, “What do I do here?” and “How do I make a good decision?”

Allow me to digress. Over the past few decades I have been to many staff meetings of public safety agencies around our great nation. The format is pretty consistent nationally: Someone has prepared an agenda and there is a discussion of the topics on the agenda regarding what action needs to be taken by the management team. Generally speaking, the last item on the agenda is the round table discussion, where the chief goes around the table and asks how things are going in every particular “silo” in the organization.

“Mary, how’s everything going in patrol?”
And the response is, “Pretty good, Chief, blah blah blah blah…”

And then the chief says, “Tom—how’s everything going in the dispatch center?”
And Tom responds, “Pretty good Chief, blah blah blah blah…”

And then the focus shifts to Pat: “How’s everything going in Admin?”
And Pat responds, “Pretty good Chief, blah blah blah…”

And then the chief turns to “Fred” (and why is it always Fred) who unfortunately had some event occur in his “silo” and it is in the news, and the City Council is angry, and the chief is on the hot seat, and the investigative reporters are out in force, and various groups in the community are upset at the police or the fire department.

So the chief says, “Fred, what the #&*@ happened on that event? I don’t want any excuses Fred; I want the bottom line here—what went wrong?” And there is a pause and everyone is focused on how Fred is going to respond and the tension mounts and Fred responds, “Chief, the bottom line is … the involved employee made a bad decision!”

You can almost hear the sigh of relief and everyone around the table starts to nod and think, “Yep, bad decision—that is what caused it, bad decision, the employee made a bad decision. Sure, that’s what caused this event! The employee made a bad decision!”

I have witnessed variations of the above staff meetings all too often and my response is: Are we actually going to say the cause of this tragedy is the employee made a bad decision?

Have you provided your people with a systematic approach—a checklist, a thinking process—on how to make a good decision?

Now, that doesn’t usually go over well. I usually hear something like, “Well Gordon, his supervisor thinks he made a bad decision, Internal Affairs thinks he made a bad decision, I think he made a bad decision—and you think his bad decision is not the cause of this tragedy?”

My response: I believe the bad decision is the proximate cause of this tragedy, but I think you have a “problem lying in wait!” Have you ever trained your people on how to make good decisions? And before you answer, “Of course we have,” show me the class you have provided to your personnel on how to make good decisions.

Here’s the bottom line: Too many public safety agencies teach people how to do things, but we do not teach them how to think!

But Gordon, why should we? Most of what we do we do right!

Please remember that most of what your people do, they have done before. Those tasks fall into the right-side boxes on the above chart. When good people—and I believe you have them in your department—get involved in high-frequency events, your old pal RPDM (recognition-primed decision-making, based on the thinking of Dr. Gary Klein) kicks in. Things go right because the involved employee has done the task many times and they have experience.

But what happens when our people get involved in a low-frequency event? Have we provided them with a systematic approach—a checklist, a thinking process—on how to make a good decision?

When I pose this question in my live programs, rarely do hands go up indicating the department has provided training on decision-making. This is a problem lying in wait. So in my next article, I will commence a multi-part analysis of how to think things through, with the ultimate goal of getting things done right and avoiding tragedy.

Until then, please work safely!

TIMELY TAKEAWAY—Between now and our next visit together, take a look at a public safety tragedy. Perhaps it’s a questionable shooting, an apparatus accident that ended up in a non-involved citizen fatality, neglect of an inmate’s critical mental health condition, or some other tragedy. Ask yourself this question: What really caused this tragedy? It is easy to blame the involved employee—and in fact the involved employee may be the cause of the tragedy. But please go back in time and ask, “Had they received any training on how to think things through prior to making the call?” And then remember the writing of Michael LeGault about why critical decisions cannot be made in the blink of an eye.

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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