Learning How to Think Critically in Public Safety

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

Gordon Graham here and hello again. Let me start this writing with the inside scoop on how this series is prepared. Every month I get an email from “Madame Editor” requesting the next piece in the series. She is kind enough to attach the last piece I wrote so there is some continuity of thought.

So five minutes ago I opened up her email to me and read the last article in this series. As I started to develop my thoughts for this article, it hit me—frankly, it hit me hard! My career with the California Highway Patrol (CHP) started 48 years ago—and my guess is that many or even most of you reading this are younger than that.

Allow me to digress. The other day I spent considerable time with my financial planner. Among the many messages I took away from that meeting was, “You started preparing for retirement early on and that was smart.” Over the years, I have done some dumb things, but as a young lawyer in the 80s doing some wills and trusts, I learned the lesson of putting aside money every month for retirement.

Some of you are very, very young and if no one has told you that “time flies by”—trust me, it does: 48 years seems like 10 years to me. Suddenly you will be “old,” and while it is never too late to start planning for your financial future, the younger you start, the better off you will be in retirement. If I were running a public safety agency, I would have a class on this topic during the initial academy training!

I will be forever grateful for my FTO’s patience with me. I was a bit of a slow learner. But the key is he never taught me how to think—he taught me how to do things!

But let’s get back to the flow of these articles and continue our discussion on decision-making. Forty-eight years ago the CHP did not provide decision-making training. They did not provide training on critical thinking in public safety. Instead, they taught me how to do things. We had a class on photography, in which they taught me how to take pictures of collision scenes. (Seriously, the camera weighed a good 5 pounds and it had a massive flashbulb that had to be replaced after every shot.)

They taught me how to write reports, how to drive in a pursuit, how to use force, how to shoot, how to lay flares, how to do CPR, how to draw a diagram. My recollection is they taught me “how to do” several hundred things CHP officers need to do.

However, they did not teach me how to think! My “break in officer” (this was long before the FTO position) taught me how to do things. The thing I had the most difficult with—seriously—was “how to get out of a patrol car after a traffic stop.” You may laugh, but to me that was very complex. However, I do remember the steps, because he (and let’s just call him Kevin, because that was his name) had a nasty habit of pounding his fist into my right arm when I did not get it done in the correct order:

  • Prior to stopping, turn front wheels all the way to the left. (There was no power steering then and you had to do it while vehicle was in motion.) Kevin explained that the tires and wheels would give you just a bit more cover in the event of shots fired.
  • Turn the right side spotlight on—Kevin told me repeatedly all the reasons why.
  • Take the radio microphone off the hook and put it in the right front seat for easier access.
  • Turn the outside radio speaker on. (For you young kids reading this, there was a time we did not have portable radios—seriously!)
  • Turn off the rear deck light (flashing yellow) unless you are blocking a lane—in which case activate the switch up and get the flashing red light on.
  • Make sure the car is in “park.” Get the parking brake set.
  • Get your hat on. Open the door and retrieve your “stick” from the grommets on the door.
  • Turn on the high-beam headlights.

It took me a couple days to master this checklist, getting to work early so I could practice because my right arm was killing me. (Not to digress, but Kevin also told me, “If I ever call you Kevin, you will kill anyone standing near me. And if you ever call me Gordon, I will kill anyone standing near you.” I was so grateful that I never had a backup officer named Gordon—that would have been very confusing.)

I will be forever grateful for Kevin’s patience with me. I was a bit of a slow learner. But the key is he never taught me how to think—he taught me how to do things!

After I got off probation and got on a motorcycle I decided to go back to school. I spent almost two years getting a “designated subjects teaching credential” at Long Beach State College, now known as California State University, Long Beach. There I learned theories on how to teach people. Again, there was no training on how to think!

I then spent three years at University of Southern California in their Institute of Safety and Systems Management. Again, I learned a lot there, but they did not teach me how to think! In public safety, there was simply no direction on critical thinking.

In 1977, I started law school at Western State University (the largest law school in America back then, because they would take anybody) and it was early on in that four-year program where I was taught how to think. The process they gave me was called IRAC—and for four years that was how I was taught to think. IRAC went like this:

Mr. Graham, what is the legal ISSUE involved in this question?
What is the RULE of law involved in this question?
Please APPLY the rule of law to the issue involved.
What is your logical CONCLUSION based on the facts?

IRAC, IRAC, IRAC, IRAC, IRAC was beat into my head. But it did not hurt as much as my right arm did five years earlier.

As a young lawyer, in 1982, I used IRAC every day when I was talking to clients. What is their ISSUE? What is the involved RULE of law? How do I APPLY the rule to the involved issue? What is my logical CONCLUSION based on this analysis?

This worked well for me as a young lawyer, but simultaneously I was a brand-new sergeant! For 10 years as a cop, everything I did I had done before, and I had Gary Klein’s theory of recognition-primed decision-making working for me.

As a sergeant, however, I was getting involved in things that I had not yet experienced. I wondered if this IRAC would work for me as a new sergeant. It did, but it was not perfect, so I started to customize it. And out of that came a “10 Step Decision-Making Process”—a way of capturing critical thinking in public safety—and that will be our focus in my next article.

TIMELY TAKEAWAY—Do you currently have a decision-making process that works for you? Take a look at John Boyd’s OODA loop—observe, orient, decide, act. Or consider WIN from the Below 100 program—What’s Important Now? And if you are close to a military veteran, ask them about the process they used in the military. There are lots of decision-making processes out there for your consideration.

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.

More Posts

How to Make Safer Decisions When Lives & Minutes Count

Related Posts

Back to Top