Pondering Past Practice: Why Consistency Is So Important in Decision-Making

by | September 15, 2021

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

Gordon Graham here and again, thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings about law enforcement and all the goings-on in our profession today.

As I look at the tragedies and other negative outcomes involving public safety activities and look for what caused them, I am often drawn to bad decisions made by the involved employee. In the last few articles I have focused on this important topic of decision-making. Here is a quick overview (again) of my decision-making checklist:

  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.

In my last article, I covered the importance of checking policy as part of your decision-making process and then following policy. If there is no specific policy, then please ensure your thinking is consistent with the mission statement of your organization.

So, you have identified the issue involved in this event. You have time to think and you have jurisdiction to handle the involved issue. You have checked your policy—now what?

The next step is to ask, “What is our past practice in this type of event? How have we done it before?” Please note I did not say, “How have I handled this event before,” because this may be a low-frequency event or even a no-frequency event for you. But perhaps someone in your department has handled it.

In my 70 years on this earth, I’ve learned the easiest way to make someone really, really mad is to give them a hint that they are being treated differently than other people who are/were similarly situated.

There is no shame in asking, “What do I do here?” This is not a sign of being stupid or weak or indecisive. Smart people ask before they act when they’re facing an unfamiliar situation, and not-so-smart people “wing it” and then suffer the consequences. Remember, you are involved in a discretionary time task (step two of the decision-making process). You have time to think—please use it.

Why is slowing down and focusing on past practice such a big deal? In my 70 years on this earth, I’ve learned the easiest way to make someone really, really mad is to give them a hint that they are being treated differently than other people who are/were similarly situated.

“Yes, you are right Mike, everyone who has ever asked for a leave of absence under the circumstances you have stated has received one. But not you!”
“You are right, ma’am, normally we do help people clean up their house after a fire, but not for you!”
“We don’t usually take kids to jail for this minor crime, but we are taking your kid!”
“Normally we allow inmates to keep outside reading material in their cells—but you’re special!”

The inconsistency in each of these statements is obvious. We (and that means you) must follow consistency in public safety decision-making. Inconsistency makes people angry and smacks of unfairness.

I see examples of this regularly in my travels. The airlines have strict carry-on policies, yet they require some people to check a bag at the gate (and not a gate check where you can pick it up on the jet bridge after deplaning, but checked in the hold) and they allow other people to get on board with excessive baggage.

Regularly flight attendants know your frequent-flyer status. Before COVID ended alcoholic drink service on most domestic flights, flight attendants would charge “non-frequent flyers” in the coach section for the drink but waive the charge for the million-miler. If you are the “regular” person you may be asking, Why did I have to pay and he did not? Optics (how things look) is a big deal to the person involved and those witnessing the event.

In the public safety world, there are tons of examples of inconsistency or unfairness; each of you has been involved in this type of situation. That is the purpose of step five in the decision-making process—you have got to be consistent with the past behavior of people in your department.

Now if you want to deviate from the norm (treat someone differently), you must have “specific articulable facts” to justify the deviation. Let’s revisit the earlier examples to see how we might justify the deviation:

“Mike, we are not giving you the leave of absence because we gave you one last year and you violated the terms and conditions of our agreement.”
“We cannot help you clean up your house because we just got dispatched on another urgent call.”
“We are taking your kid in because this is the fifth time we have talked to him this week—talking is not working.”
“You’re not allowed to keep outside reading material in your cell because last time you tore up the pages and swallowed a large quantity, putting yourself in danger.”

We are now making sure we apply consistency in public safety decision-making, which brings us halfway through the process involved in making better decisions. The next step is critical: asking, “Am I doing the right thing here?” It’s essential not only to do things right, but to do the right thing right. That will be the topic of my next article.

TIMELY TAKEAWAY—In California there are 18 protected classes recognized by federal and state law. Please think about this as you ponder this iteration of my ramblings. When a member of a given protected class is treated less favorably than someone who is a member of another protected class, does it make sense to you that they might be thinking, “Why am I being treated differently?” And what are the consequences when people think we are not applying law or policy fairly and consistently?

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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