Dealing with Conflict, Violence and Crises: by Fred Leland

Habituation, Complacency, False Sense of Urgency verses the Strategic and Tactical Mind

‘Thus, it is both sobering and compelling to recall that among the millions of life forms that have inhabited the Earth and engaged in potentially lethal conflicts, one simple rule applies: those who have mastered the evolutionary game survive and prosper...those who have not become extinct. ~Raphael D. Sagarin

You are on duty and an alarm comes in. You’re a proactive initiative driven officer so you flip the blue lights and siren on and put the pedal to the metal and respond. The goal, to get there and get there quickly, after all we are trained to treat every call as a potential threatening one and that must mean we get there quickly, DOESN”T IT? Or should we be using our minds and making other decisions that take into consideration our safety and the safety of those we serve into consideration?

Does speed have anything to do with a safe response or handling of a call? Could it; yes does it always, NO! In my view speed (hast, rushing, reckless action) in most cases speed, and false sense of urgency along with complacency costs us, be it driving to calls or foot pursuits to handling disturbances and it costs us dearly in both loss of citizens and officers lives. In the end it comes down to the decisions we make whether it’s behind the wheel of a patrol car responding to the scene or on foot and dealing with the unfolding events of a crisis. 

Decision Making… Show up or Set them up?

The has been a lot of focus over the last 20 years or so on responding to calls; emergency driving and crises response. This is due to the loss of lives of both police officers and citizens. The concerns about this are obviously warranted but the methods of training are still not focused where they need to be.  In my view they are way to over focused on the physical side of the equation and neglecting the moral and mental realms of conflict.

I know this is a bold statement to make but the problems with responding to calls and emergency driving for instance do not come from the physical skills of handling a vehicle, hell if there is any physical skill we learn and practice and practice often it is that of driving a car be it going to and from work, patrolling the city and town, responding to calls and yes even in pursuing fleeing criminals.

The problem is in our thinking or better yet our lack of thinking when the combination of an over or false sense of urgency and complacency collide and all good judgments and decision making go out the window with the bath water. Col John Boyd talks about folding the adversary back inside himself with fast transient observation, orientation, decision and action cycles (OODA Loops). The complacency/false sense urgency factor causes us to fold ourselves back inside ourselves and clear OODA Loops are not taking place, a form of self induced friction. Friction caused by over or under reaction, which leads to just showing up and no strategic analysis or thought takes place in an effort to set the stage for successful operations. Boyd said it best when he stated: “Decisions with actions is pointless. Actions without decisions are reckless.”

Complacency and False Sense of Urgency

In his book a Sense of Urgency, John Kotter states; “The problem is complacency. We have all seen it. Yet we underestimate its power and its prevalence. Highly destructive complacency is, in fact, all around us, including in places where people would deny it, deny it, and deny it still more. With complacency, no matter what people say, if you look at what they do it is clear that they are mostly content with the status quo.”

In law enforcement, security and the military we have heard the term complacency for years as being detrimental to officer survival skills and I think most would agree that is indeed so. The question is how do we fight complacency? Is it with by psyching yourself up and rushing to a scene? This false sense of urgency is driven by pressure to get there and anxiety, fear, and anger and maybe even ego. This false sense of urgency that results in reckless responses to just get there and the activity surrounding it is more distracting than useful. We often mistake this overwhelming fast response for real sense of urgency. Let’s go! Move! Hurry up! Go get him! Get inside! We need to do something! Is all word we hear and use to create this false sense of urgency.

“The real solution to the complacency problem is a true sense of urgency. This set of thoughts, feelings, and actions is never associated with an endless list of exhausting activities.  It has nothing to do with anxious running around. It is not supported by an adrenalin rush that cannot be sustained over time. True urgency focuses on critical issues. True urgency is driven by a deep determination to win, not anxiety about losing.”

This true sense of urgency is crucial to those of us who respond to dangerous circumstances it comes from developing through experience a strategic and tactical mind, a mind that takes into consideration the mental, moral and physical dimensions of conflict.

Strategic and Tactical Mind

The strategic and tactical mind takes into consideration all the key factors of a dynamic and competitive encounter. Responding to the scene and once we arrive we know from training we are suppose to set up tactically and make observations to get a pulse on what's going on (orientation). Then make decisions that help us gain the advantage before we take action and make entry. Hell we are taught that day one in the police academy. Experience however is that we pull up front and run up and knock on the front door in all too many cases, costing us dearly with names inscribed on the Law Enforcement Memorial Wall. Understanding true sense of urgency and possessing a strategic  and tactical mind will help you stay mentally calm, which leads to the ability think about what's going on and consider the key factors and make good thought out decisions based on actionable knowledge  you have gathered responding to, arriving at and interacting at the scene.

Key factors enhancing the strategic and tactical Mind

This is war. It is the most important skill in the nation. It is the basis of life and death. It is the philosophy of survival or destruction. You must know it well. Your skill comes from five factors. Study these factors when you plan war. You must insist on knowing your situation. ~Sun Tzu

  • Discuss philosophy
  • Discuss climate.
  • Discuss ground.
  • Discuss leadership.
  • Discuss military methods

What's the overall philosophy in handling the situation? Is it to get a barricaded subject to give up and comply, to resolve a domestic disturbance, or is it to end ongoing active deadly action?

What's the climate of the situation? Is the barricaded subject,  or those involved in the domestic disturbance talking and interacting signaling possible compliance or have they shut down, gathered a weapon of some kind and actively committed to escalating the situation? If its ongoing deadly action is the perpetrators of the violence continuing their actions or has they deescalated and it’s turned now into a hostage scenario? What type of weapons do they have? Are they a highly trained adversary or untrained or unknown? How well trained are those on the friendly side of the equation? Is there a need for better trained units and do you have access to them? Do you consider the need to take action by either engaging, disengaging or waiting? Do you consider how to set up tactically to meet the strategic objective? How do you set up, so you have the advantage and ability to adapt regardless of the moves the adversary makes?

Do you know the ground (environment)? Is the scene a place you have been to on several occasions and you and your men know the lay out or is it a place you are unfamiliar with? Who has the advantage? What's the best avenue of approach and entry point? If you have to make a tactical retreat where will you go? Where is the best place to rally and set up and discuss a plan?

What role does leadership play? Is it the type of leadership on the friendly side top/down that requires constant contact and orders all moves or is it a bottom/up style built on trust that sets the objective and intent and allows units to adapt and act as necessary?   Also do you consider the leadership equation on the adversarial side and how does that play into the tactics you will use?

What methods and tactics do you apply? Have you been trained in them and how does your past experience and evaluation of the situation dictates the methods you will use? Will you attempt to communicate or does the situation require an entry and engagement?   

Considering these factors are critical to how we respond and ultimately how we successful we are. Some reading this will say hell I never think about these things and we are successful in all most all the calls we go to. This is true, I have been there and seen success come out of a vast array of calls we respond to. But I want you to consider a couple of other factors.

Responding via Habituation; or Strategy and Tactics?

I am not going to give a lot of statistics because statistics lock us into a certain way of thinking. But humor me for a second.

Statistics say we use force in less than one percent of all the calls we respond to. Statistics also say; most people approximately 99.3 do exactly what we tell them to do 97 percent of them without questioning authority at all. They just do what they are told. The other 2.3 percent we have to communicate negotiate and interact with and they eventually comply. The problem lies in the .07 percent who no matter what has the mindset to do harm or kill anyone who gets in their way. Our success at resolution of a vast array of problems without resorting to physical or deadly force leads us to complacency and the status quo. We have been habituated into expecting nothing bad to happen! A major problem when the proverbial black swan (unexpected, unpredictable) event takes place on your watch.

The decisions we make while we drive to, and arrive on the scene of a disturbance or crises of some kind; are they more based on habit or do we think about what we are doing? Think for a moment, about it seriously. I believe for the most part with some exceptions (those who constantly learn-unlearn and relearn-ADAPT), its the habits we form on the job such as; petal to the metal rushing to calls, pulling up front or in the driveways of houses, knocking on doors, immediately making entries where disturbances are taking place, pursuing suspects on foot into building and woods, approaching vehicle stops as routine no risk situations etc, etc, etc…

These types of responses come from the habits we form and are based on complacency or a false sense urgency, instead of thinking of a strategy; the possible methods and sequences of events as the situation plays out (friendly and adversarial sides) based on experience; estimating the odds of how things could unfold and the risk verses time equation, as well as, choosing the proper tactics; which method best fits this particular scenario. Not yesterday’s situation but today's, this one, right now as it is unfolding with decisions based on strategic and tactical thinking instead of good luck and habits. 

Habituation is the psychological process in humans and animals in which there is a decrease in psychological response and behavioral response to a stimulus after repeated exposure to that stimulus over a duration of time.

We have spent a lot of time over the years doing stimulus response training most of it has been centered around formal training classes on defensive tactics and firearms training in an effort to better prepare officers for those situations where their lives are on the line. The training works very well developing these skills. My question and I believe the answer lies here within the question as well is; does our responding to and from calls in the manner we do as described above stimulate our minds and condition our responses? I believe the answer is a clear yes! We are conditioned that nothing bad will happen because our rate of success is so high. This on the job (stimulus/response) training puts us at a disadvantage when things go bad. It enhances the complacency factor from day to day responding to uneventful or successfully resolved crisis situations.  

To become more effective we must understand conflict and violence at a much deeper level as well as develop officers knowledge of habituation and how developing good adaptable habits to enhance their ability to use their senses and develop a smooth running observation, orientation decision and action cycles. Research has shown that the use of decision making exercises and decision making critiques is a training methodology that conditions the mind to adapt and enhances the decision making capabilities of individuals, teams and organizations.  (See Critical Decision Making Under Pressure and the work of Maj Don Vandergriff). It’s time we focus more intently on developing individuals, teams and organizations in the three realms of conflict. We must learn, unlearn and relearn not only in training methodologies but in where an when we are being affected by the vast array of situations that condition the mind and how to leverage that experience to more effective strategic and tactical responses based on the strategic and tactical mind.

Comparison: Habit verses the Strategic and Tactical Mind

We are pretty damn good at the physical skill of driving whether it’s patrolling the streets, responding to calls or pursuing fleeing suspects.  Where we get into trouble is in our decision making behind the wheel, when the overwhelming sense of urgency to respond takes over and we lose control of our ability to make good decisions, such as; putting the gas pedal to the floor only responses.

Is there a difference between pedal to the metal speeding to a call and getting there or strategically thinking about how you respond to a call, understanding the sense of urgency to get there and setting up your tactical response? If so what's the most efficient method? Let’s take a look at an example.

You receive a domestic disturbance call and it’s clear from the dispatch that there is escalating violence. You hit the lights; siren and gas pedal and start heading to the location. Traffic is medium to heavy at the time but you must get to this call, “someone may be in danger!” These damn cars don’t they get it goes through you mind and out your mouth as you curse those failing to get out of your path. “Can’t they see the blue lights and hear the damn siren...assholes! You’re traveling at about 75 miles per hour as you approach an intersection of two major roads the traffic is stopped in front of you for the red light. You slow down as you approach but continue to somewhat cautiously move through the red light at the intersection. That “damn idiot” you shout as a car comes through the intersection at 50 mile per hour, the legal posted speed limit on this major road. “I know he had the green light but couldn’t that stupid S.O.B. see and hear me?” You get through the intersection safely despite the close call and continue on your way to the domestic disturbance. You get to the location pulling into the driveway. You get out of the car and the second and third patrol cars pull up as back up units, right out front of the location.

Now I am not going to get into what happens once you get out, because there could be multiple outcomes depending upon your awareness, assessment and how you interact with the environment and climate of the situation. However I do want you to think about what could happen and who has the advantage.

Does it make sense that you are there out front or in the driveway? Do you have the advantage on this call now that you are there?  Have you thought about how to approach or do you just walk up, to the front door and knock?  Or does the person, people on the inside have the better advantage as you arrive? What could this mean to you, your fellow officers if the emotionally charged person decides he does not want you there? Is he armed? Did you even consider whether or not he was armed? Or did your hast to get there and the effort and concentration driving fast keep you from even considering that question?

Now the same call as above yet you decide to think about what you are doing. You understand that this is a serious call so you turn on your lights and siren and gas pedal goes down, but not to the floor. You think of the potential dangers of responding to domestic calls and decide to get there with a true sense of urgency, quickly but not at warp speed and think about your response. As you drive you are aware traffic is medium to heavy and that you need to be cautious of others on the road that do not have your experience behind the wheel. As you approach the major intersection you lights and siren activated your speed is 55 mph, you slow down and note the traffic again as you stop and then edge your way into the major intersection until you observe it’s clear, and then continue on. As you get closer you kill the lights and siren, advise dispatch and other responding officers you are going off and then ask is there any more information? Dispatch tells you; “we have had other domestics at this location, no record of any firearms or firearms license holders at the location.” You stop a few buildings down from the location. You also radio this to your back-up units and advise them to meet you at your location as a rally point and to come quietly.

Once they arrive you all decide to walk with deliberateness up to the location and as you do you are all listening to what's going on. There are people in the area who have a look of concern on their face and tell you that this has been an ongoing thing at this location. You ask them if they know anything about the people inside. They tell you that they know them well and that the two have kids and have been struggling financially and have been arguing a lot lately, since one of them lost their job. Do you know of any weapons you ask as you continue on foot to the location. They do not, know of if they have weapons or not they respond. “But I do know Joe goes hunting.” You tell the concerned citizens to stay put. You then talk with the other responding officers about the best approach. As you get to the location, still concealed you look and listen. Things are still unfolding now and the tone of conversation is loud but seemingly controlled. You overhear a voice on the inside say he is leaving and that he is tired of arguing. Second voices you hear say “good go!”

What are your options in this scenario verses the scenario above where you were already in the driveway? Do you have more or less? Do you have more time to plan a response knowing more than in the latter example knowing much less? Who has the advantage in this second scenario? The answer should be obvious yet, why is it that the vast majority of our responses are like the first example? Think about it!

It’s often said that good tactics involve speed, surprise and violence of action. Reading words about tactics and strategy mean nothing unless you understand how they apply to the situation you find yourself in.

Speed does not mean fast moving only in the sense of speeding recklessly to a call or instantly pursuing a suspect on foot. It does mean, putting you at a position of advantage so you can gather and manage more information via the OODA Loop, which becomes actionable understanding (orientation) that you can then act on to deal with the situation as it unfolds on your terms, not on the adversaries. Yes there are times when spontaneous things happen and speed in the traditional sense is necessary but think about it! However, in the vast majority of cases speed equals the combination of strategy and tactics not complacent, false sense of urgency and reckless responses.

Surprise does not mean pulling up to the front door of a location because you got there quickly, hell that is the exact opposite of surprise. It does mean again positioning so that when you act it does indeed surprise the person so that even if they did have violent intentions they may reconsider and take a non-violent action because they were caught unprepared and off guard.  By using surprise you got inside the adversaries observation, orientation, decision and action cycles that put him at a disadvantage.

Violence of action does not always mean moving forward, for that matter action (as I prefer to call it) can indeed mean waiting or disengaging if the risk analysis dictates so. Action is again positioning to gain the advantage so you win the confrontation, through  sound strategy and tactics be it words, physical imitative driven Combative’s or reasonable lethal force.

Conclusion: Learn-Unlearn and Relearn

Knowledge is power, but only when knowledge is combined with an understanding of how that knowledge applies to the street and particular situation. There is no one way to handle and solve a particular problem, when it comes to conflict and crises, this seem obvious. We must understand the role of the strategic and tactical mind over the habit formed mind and whenever possible seek to adapt responses based on intuitive and or explicit understanding, considering time and risk.

In our responding the goal is to accomplish something. Accomplishing that something is based on gaining ground and the position of advantage to exploit opportunities and avoid or minimize hazards. The strategic and tactical mind gives those responding to crises situations the power and desire to win through understanding, anticipation based on experience and the unfolding circumstances, adaptation and sound decision making. Show Up? Or Set them up? The choice is yours.