Police Operational Philosophy

When I ask police officers or policy agency executives about their personal or organizational operational philosophy, I am usually met by blank stares. For most, it's the first time such a question has been posed. Worse yet, it's the first time they've even considered such. Cops, in general, don't like to engage in discussions of conceptual issues. Administrators often confuse their department's ambiguous mission statement as an operational philosophy.

The first step to understanding operational philosophy is to explain the options along a spectrum. This may best be accomplished by using a scenario:
An officer stops a car for erratic driving. The driver is clearly drunk. When the officer orders the man out of the car, he refuses. The driver becomes belligerent, "justifying" his refusal through a poorly-designed legal argument. Even when the officer explains to the driver that he is under arrest, the driver disagrees. 
At one end of the spectrum, the officer half-heartedly reasons with the driver for a few seconds, but quickly grabs the man by his jacket and pulls him out the car door window. After all, the police officer gave the man a lawful order. Any delay by the officer might jeopardize his own safety. The driver's aggressive tone and attitude must be met with superiority to avoid an escalation of danger. The officer justifies his action based on taking control of a volatile situation.
At the opposite end, the officer acquiesces to the driver's intimidating behavior. The officer has no plans to touch the motorist, under any circumstances. Any decision to use physical force will be made by a responding supervisor or backup officer. The officer may even hesitate to meet physical provocation with defensive force...as the man is just drunk, not really dangerous.
These two officers have different operational philosophies. Each can be right; each can be wrong.

Our model's STRATEGY-TACTICS tier serves as a guide for operational philosophy.

 Officer Stabilize

The officer who relies solely upon his verbal skills risks further resistance or escape. The situation may further degrade, and hopes for a successful outcome diminish. His indecision and lack of confidence put him and others in danger. Because he will not take proactive preventive measures, he will be forced to react...putting himself at a severe time disadvantage. His timid, unprepared, defensive attitude invites ambush - both verbal and physical. He gets walked on. He teeters while trying to recall case law or policy. Because of his passive nature and avoidance of conflict, he increases his chances of being hurt in a sudden fight. He's a wuss.

However, Officer Stabilize's friendly demeanor is less likely to generate citizen complaints. He outwardly maintains his cool, and hopes for the best. He rarely over-reacts. He takes his time, and uses that time to collect as much information about the situation as possible. He keeps physical distance between himself and the danger areas. He recognizes that time is on his side. Officer Stabilize prudently waits for help before needlessly rushing into action. He's smart and calculated.

Officer Action

The officer who relies on his muscles takes the offensive. He is overly aggressive and refuses to use persuasive salesmanship to solve the problem. He is intrusive into citizens' privacy and freedoms. He recklessly enters the danger zone, and is forced to make quick, uninformed decisions. His perceived violence makes him a liability to his agency - as evidenced by his frequent citizen complaints and civil lawsuits. Officer Action's rationale is flawed - he puts himself at greater risk by closing the distance. Because of his tendency to fight, he increases his chances of injury. He's a cowboy.

However, Officer Action is courageous. He leads his peers into darkness, putting his own well-being beneath those he swore to protect. He recognizes the immediacy and urgency of the circumstances, and he makes a really decent hasty plan based on the limited time and information afforded to him. He operates at peak performance in dynamic and ever-changing environments. He takes firm control and affects positive outcomes - on purpose. He never lets the situation get out of hand. Officer Action recognizes when immediate intervention must be put into play. He's a knight in shining armor.

The Spectrum

By now, you've determined that I have made it almost impossible to commit to one option or the other. Some critics will say the two officers, Stabilize and Action, are mutually exclusive - that one simply cannot blend the best traits of the two into one SuperOfficer (nor take the worst of both into something terrible!) We disagree.

Trends in procedural case law are pushing police operational philosophies toward the Stabilize end (absent threats to officers or others). The same courts are extremely generous in the power granted to police officers when there is an articulable danger. The key word there is "articulable." The threat or danger must be reasonable, justifiable, and explainable. Officers are urged to use restraint, but permitted to take decisive and intrusive action to overcome a dangerous situation. The trend is for stabilization unless an otherwise articulated danger exists. (Don't believe me? I'll send you case law to read over and make your own conclusions.)

Universal strategy spectrum, from less to more intrusive.

It's like a parent who asks her toddler to stay on the sidewalk. When the child strays toward the curb, the parent yells out to STOP! And when the baby ventures onto the roadway, that mom won't think twice about violently yanking the tiny arm (which might cause injury itself) to prevent the kid from being run over by that speeding car. The time to talk has passed; nothing will work but quick and decisive action to prevent more serious harm or death!

To say you are a "middle of the road" officer is lukewarm - and signals that you lack the needed intensity from either extreme. It's cowardly and noncommittal. Officers must run the spectrum, from end to end. They must be the most patient, pleading, empathetic salesman one second...and the most fearsome, deadly, ruthless machine the next. If you don't recognize the need to be BOTH, you are taking serious risks.

Operational Philosophy

So then what differences in philosophy exist?

Well imagine that same parent pulling on the arm of their child before a speeding car approached, to get the baby out of an empty roadway. Or the parent grabbed the toddler before it stepped on the curb line. Or the parent reached out as soon as the child turned toward the roadway. How close to danger must the child actually get before decisive action is taken? How quickly does the parent escalate from verbal control to physical control? On what timeline does the parent operate while advancing from Stabilize toward Act?

The best litmus test to gauge police operational philosophy is in the world of high-risk warrant service. There are two opposing viewpoints:
  • Default of surround-and-callout, with the occasional case for a dynamic entry.
  • Default of dynamic entry, with the occasional case for a surround-and-callout.
I rarely see any middle ground on this. And those in opposition will passionately defend their positions (as do I!).

Operational philosophies are oftentimes driven by a powerful police culture. These sub-cultures may be different from not only region-to-region, but also agency-to-agency, and even officer-to-officer in the same agency. These operational philosophies can be influenced by administrators, supervisors, and trainers. But most importantly, our operational philosophies are affected by our citizens. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our citizens have a say-so in how we do business, and their word is being heard through court justices via case law. And those opinions are delving more into the "how" we solve problems.

We, as police officers, must not fall for our own traps. We must analyze situations for their danger and make logical plans to combat those risks. Sometimes we must jump into action, but more times than not...we should be slowing down. Otherwise, we might be putting ourselves into unnecessary jeopardy.

Just how you balance and articulate risk and danger and governmental intrusion against the greater good and desire for safety is what operational philosophy is all about. Well, that...... and just how much shit you're willing to take. I contend, until we justify a threat, we take a lot.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr


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