The Power of Recognition-Primed Decision-Making in Public Safety

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

Gordon Graham here again, and I hope all is going great for you as we head into the holiday season. Thanks for taking the time to read this brief writing concerning the goings-on in public safety today.

As many of you know, for more than 40 years now, I have been standing in front of cops and firefighters and corrections personnel and risk managers and trying to share what I have learned in my years in uniform, as a union representative, as a consultant and as a lawyer. And in each of these 40+ years, I have received evaluations from attendees.

I have been so fortunate that most of the evaluations show people enjoy my work as a speaker. Occasionally, however, I get a negative review—and these are of concern to me, so I read them with interest, with the goal of improving my work. Over the years, I have tabulated these “less than good” reviews, and I have noted a pattern. There are three things that keep popping up.

The most common negative comment I receive is, “He did not give us enough breaks during the program.” That is accurate, and for it I apologize. I have this tendency to plow on and go too long without taking a break. Fortunately, as I get older nature is telling me subtly that I need to take the hourly break, so that should not be a problem in the future.

The second most frequent comment is, “I found some of the things he said very offensive.” With the goal of being honest and trying to motivate people to improve our wonderful profession, I sometimes say things people legitimately find offensive. That’s never my intent, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take to effect change. On the other hand, there are some people who claim offense when they’re not really offended, they just enjoy being outraged about something!

I can understand these first two comments, but the third I find troubling. Occasionally, I will receive a comment along these lines: “He is a very, very negative person and we need more positive presenters and not the negative people.”

This is troubling to me because I am very positive regarding the work of public safety personnel in America. The vast majority of things that our people do—and this was happening long before anyone ever heard of me—is getting done right!

I will take this to my grave: Most of what cops, and public safety personnel in general, do is being done right!

How do I know? Let’s take law enforcement as an example and look at the numbers. We have more than 800,000 cops in this great nation working in about 18,000 law enforcement agencies in 50 states. At any point in time throughout the average day, about 25% of these 800,000 are on duty.

So let’s just assume that each of these 200,000 cops make just FIVE contacts during their shift on duty. Just FIVE. Maybe giving someone directions, writing a parking ticket, taking someone into custody, talking to the victim of a crime, interviewing a witness to a crime—just FIVE contacts in their shift.

I’m doing the math quickly, but that is the benefit of Catholic School—that is ONE MILLION contacts per shift. Let’s assume there are only two shifts per day (assuming every cop is on a 12-hour shift, which is not the case but let’s make the math easy). That is TWO MILLION contacts per day.

If you multiply this by 365 (that is how many days there are in a year—most of the time), that is 730,000,000 contacts per year! And the vast majority of these 730,000,000 annual contacts end up going right. No one gets hurt, no one gets offended, there is no lawsuit, and no one needs counseling.

I will take this to my grave: Most of what cops, and public safety personnel in general, do is being done right!

That’s because most of the things you and your people do in your organization are high-frequency tasks, and your experience will show you how to do it right. How does this happen? It’s called Recognition-Primed Decision-Making (RPDM or RPD).

If you want to read all about RPDM, I recommend Sources of Power by Dr. Gary Klein. However, we can summarize the principals of RPDM quickly:

  • Picture your mind as hard drive (or for those of you over 50, a slide tray). Your daily experiences help load this drive. Everything you do and experience is loaded into your hard drive.
  • When you are involved in any task or incident, your magnificent brain quickly scans your hard drive and looks for a close match, aka a memory marker or a mental model or a behavioral script.
  • When your brain finds a match that correlates with a positive outcome, it executes the stored behavior.
  • Bottom line: Give me a good woman or man and put them in a high-frequency event, and there is a darn high probability they will do the task right.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Occasionally errors occur on high-frequency events. When this happens and you look for what caused the tragedy, there are five issues that keep on popping up. They are:

  1. Complacency
  2. Fatigue
  3. Distractions
  4. Hubris
  5. Risk Homeostasis

We’ll look at each of these issues in our next time together. Until then, please work safely.

TIMELY TAKEAWAY—You will laugh when you read this, but take five minutes to look at the Wikipedia entry for “Gary Klein.” I think you will find the breadth and depth of his work fascinating.

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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