“Thinking for Special Agents…” An integral part of training our law enforcement personnel...
“It didn’t seem like a particularly serious mistake at the time. But it would end up being one of many things-a slow accrual, compounding steadily and imperceptibly toward critical mass.” Recent events regarding the current crisis in policing remind me of that Jon Krakauer quote from “Into Thin Air,” his novel chronicling the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster that claimed the lives of eight people, including two world-renowned climbers. I used a case study of that disaster while teaching Special Agent Trainees of the Drug Enforcement Administration at the DEA Academy. From 2014–2016, I developed and taught a course titled “Thinking For Special Agents,” (TFSA) — seven hours of classroom discussion and case studies on adaptability, critical thinking, and integrated decision making. TFSA taught problem-based learning tools on critical thinking, ethical decision making, and collaborative partnerships to improve decision making as recommended in the March 2015 Interim Report of The President’s Task Force On 21st Century Policing.
TFSA met with resistance from staff and students alike, many of whom believed that there was no need for these skills, as basic proficiency in firearms handling, surveillance techniques, and report writing would be sufficient to a new agent’s success in the field. They mocked these skills as “touchy-feely,” nonsensical esoteric exercises better suited for liberal universities than law enforcement academies. I disagreed then, as I do today, and worked diligently to highlight why these skills were crucial for success, both to new agents/officers and veterans. Adaptability, whether mental, interpersonal, or physical, helps them handle emergency/crisis situations, improve their resiliency and ability to solve problems creatively, and deal effectively with unpredictable change. This ability to manage adaptability is crucial to the effective and safe performance of an officer’s duties. I felt so strongly of the need to develop and improve agents’ individual thinking processes that I taught TFSA to 30 Law Enforcement Explorers, aged 14–21, who attended a leadership course hosted by the DEA.
Successful adaptation requires recognizing and understanding an organization’s implicit and explicit culture, defined as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that an organization learns as it solves its problems….that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relations to those problems” (Edgar Schein, 1992). This shared culture can become so accepted that it is unconscious (e.g. “That’s how we’ve always done it”). New members are socialized to learn the accepted way to feel, think, and act. I felt it crucial that the students understood the factors influencing why group think, a “go along to get along” mentality, and the code of silence are pervasive in law enforcement. I encouraged candid discussion on the proposition that most law enforcement officers are more apt to risk their lives than their careers. We discussed that moral courage is often much harder to exhibit than physical courage due to organizational norms, culture, and operating system pressures, as well as effective ways to deal with these pressures without risking being ostracized by peers and superiors, and losing promotion opportunities and coveted assignments.
Critical thinking requires the use of rational, clear, complex thought processes to come to an informed decision. This is a crucial skill for law enforcement officers. A barrier to such critical thinking within testosterone-fueled police agencies, which often pride themselves on exhibiting a kinetic ‘warrior’ mentality, is a lack of introspection, and a resistance to accepting constructive criticism, such as the officers who resigned from the emergency response unit in Buffalo, New York following the arrest of two of their fellow officers for assaulting a 75 year old man. If officers/agents are to make more effective decisions in stressful situations, such as choosing to de-escalate tension, they must be taught to acknowledge and deal with their preconceived notions, assumptions, biases (explicit or implicit), beliefs, dislikes and likes, as well as personal histories that color their individual decision-making processes
Returning to the Mt. Everest example above, it was a classic example of poor decision making, the factors of which are analogous to those affecting officers/agents: incomplete or faulty information, overconfidence, ego, lack of emotional control, information overload, improper framing (the lens through which one initially views a situation/problem based on one’s history, bias, experience, and education), and selective perception — paying attention only to information or evidence that supports what you believe is true while failing to seek contradictory evidence and ignoring relevant information.
TFSA provided students with decision-making models, such as John Boyd’s “OODA Loop” (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act), and “Recognition Primed Decision Making,” along with their applicability to everyday law enforcement scenarios. It is as important to provide officers/agents with the tools to effectively build their thinking muscle memory, as it is to maintain proficiency with their physical muscle memory (e.g. firearms proficiency, handcuffing techniques). Unfortunately, the course was discontinued as those with the mindset that such issues were not germane to law enforcement training prevailed. I reflect on that period often these days and realize that the Italian politician Nicolo Machiavelli offered sage advice about reaction to change: “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initiators have the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institutions and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one.” Today’s law enforcement climate is in crisis, yet each crisis is an opportunity to implement effective change. For those who do not like, or are unable to effectively adapt to change, he/she risks becoming irrelevant, as evident by recent calls to defund law enforcement agencies. We all desire more effective police forces more in line with a guardian than a warrior mentality, and continuous effective training is key to achieving that goal. That training should include teaching law enforcement personnel to exercise their thinking muscles to a higher degree than currently exists.
- Dan Mehdi