Mastering Tactics with Decision Making Exercises and Critiques


  “Only those who have challenged themselves with countless tactical situations in peacetime, only those who have refined their ability to make decisions and communicate clearly with subordinates, are prepared to command in war.” ~GEN Paul K. Van Riper

On the job training and experience is often stated as “the way” to learn the job of policing. What does this mean to us cops? Does it mean with time on the job we’ll get better at what we do, automatically, or magically from working shift after shift and handling call after call? Every time we race to the scene and charge towards the sounds of danger and come out safe with suspect in custody, mean that we have somehow gotten better just by being there and participating in the dangerous encounter? Or is there something more to this concept of “on the job training” we should be doing to leverage every experience no matter how small or big to improve our performance?

When I think of on the job training I do not envision an environment where you show up for work and fly by the seat of your pants and hope things work out as you think they should. No, what I envision by on the job training is that you learn from every experience and focus on leveraging the lessons learned to make you better at the job. Law enforcement officers are members of a profession that does not routinely practice its tactical skills. Only constant violent conflict and violent crime, a condition to objectionable, to even contemplate, would allow such practice. Thus the honing and developing of law enforcement peacekeeping skills must be achieved in other ways. An understanding of tactical theory is an important foundation for mastering tactics, but theory alone will only take you so far. The use of the decisions making exercises and decision making critiques are a couple of ways for officers to gain experience and learn to translate tactical theory to the street, that otherwise could not be gained.

Research has shown that the most important principle of skill performance is that skill depends on knowledge base. In general, the more practice one has had in some domain, the better the performance, and from all indications, this increase in expertise is due to improvement in the knowledge base. This same principle holds true for tactics as well and this is where decision making exercises otherwise known as tactical decision games come into play.

Using Decision Making Exercises aka Tactical Decision Games to Master Tactical Decision Making

“The problem is to grasp, in innumerable special cases, the actual situation which is covered by the mists of uncertainty, to appraise the facts correctly and to guess the unknown elements, to reach a decision quickly and then to carry it out forcibly and relentlessly. ~Helmuth von Moltke

In his book “Mastering Tactics” MAJ John Schmitt; states “tactical decision games (TDGs) are a simple, fun, and effective way to improve your decision making ability and tactical acumen, to improve your mastery of the art of war.” In law enforcement tactical decision games improve the art of operations or what I like to call police operational art or our ability to take what you know, be able to adapt and then apply it to a given set of circumstances to affect your strategy on the street, bringing an end to a violent occurrence using appropriate tactics. MAJ Schmitt goes on to say, “like most skills, you can improve tactical decision-making ability through practice.” The idea behind TDGs is to put you in the role of a cop facing a tactical problem, give you a limited amount of time and information, and require you to develop a plan to solve the problem. Maj Schmitt explains, by repeatedly working through problems like these you will learn not only to make better decisions, but you will also learn to make decisions better, that is, more quickly and efficiently. You will learn to look at a situation and instantly take in its essential feature and cut right to the heart of the problem.

I have been using tactical decision games (solitary, group and free play) in my training for a decade now and they work very well at building confidence in officers. Solitary play-is exactly like, if then/when then thinking, only you write your tactical response (how) and rational (why) down in response to a scenario you have been given.

In group play TDGs-you work the tactical problem as a shift or unit using pen, paper and a map. You, again explain your response (how) and rational (why). The benefit of group play is as you work the problem collectively you see different perspectives from different players and alternatives and options to your own way of thinking about the problem become clear. In short you realize there is more than one workable tactical option to a situation. You also learn to communicate plans and options better with one another when using group play, which is quite a powerful and much needed effect. Group play also generates discussions on tactical concepts and creates a heightened interest in tactics overall.

Free Play TDGs- is a role playing with simmunitions or if you have no SIMMs use red or blue guns. With free play you combine both the cognitive and physical skills needed to solve the problem in an as close to real life encounter. When the free play scenario is completed both blue team (officers) and red team (adversaries) critique the response and action taken. The power of free play is that you have to walk, talk, think and do while you accord with an adversary(s.) This conditions the mental and physical aspects of real life tactical decision making and action.

Solitary, group and free play are all effective ways to conduct TDGs with both solitary and group play being an easy cost effective way to get your repetitions in. You can conduct solitary and group play TDGs in a short time span with only pen and paper during roll call or some other time on shift when there is down time. Free play force on force takes a little more coordination but with effort and cooperation from all, it also can be done while working a shift. The question comes down to how much does officer safety and tactical effectiveness mean to you? Getting to the level you want takes walking your talk!

The biggest lessons learned from using TDGs are, they teach officers HOW TO THINK verses telling them what to think. TDGs in all their forms create and nurture tactical problem solvers. Officers also learn there is no one single solution to a tactical problem and hence they learn to blend their thoughts and ideas with departmental policies and procedures allowing for better decision making and adaptable, safe and effective responses to the host of problems police officers face. The feedback I have received from all who participate in the decision making exercises feel much more confident in their abilities as a result of using TDGs. They begin to understand the WHY behind the tactics they use verses just blindly following a checklist of techniques.

Using Decision Making Critiques aka After Action Reviews to Leverage Lessons Learned

“To learn as quickly as possible, we must be more deliberate, more disciplined, and more thorough in our approach in order to squeeze as much as possible from each experience, as with everything else about mental conditioning there is no magic here.” ~Gary Klein

The decision making critique (DMC) or after action review (AAR) is another critical component to developing decision makers. The AAR is conducted after the decisions are made and actions taken. You can use the after action review process after a TDG and should regularly use them after an actual event officers handled on the street. A candid, frank and open discussion takes place amongst the group involved in the TDG or actual incident to bring out lessons learned. The goal of the AAR is to focus on key aspects of the incident, such as, were the decisions made in a timely manner? What was the rationale of the individual or group in making their decision? Could we have done something better, safer, and more effective? Focus on every aspect from communications (both friendly and adversarial), tactical response and approach, perimeter set up and containment, entry techniques or the ruse, surprise and/or deception you may have used to help you gain control. You should also examine arrest and search techniques and anything else you or other member of the shift or team, feel was a strength or weakness that lessons can be learned from.

The powerful lessons that are learned from reviewing and critiquing a crisis situation you were personally involved in is a better than most formal training you can get. Why? Because you were there and experienced the circumstances first hand and then sat down and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the response. From these lessons learned you develop a better plan for next time. A key component to conducting an AAR is a candid open dialog, anything less and you are only fooling yourself.

Fight the Fear of Using These Time Tested Methods with Strength of Character

“The commander must have the moral courage to make bold decisions and accept the necessary risk when the natural inclination is to choose a less ambitious task.” ~MAJ John Schmitt, Mastering Tactics

Police operational art places high demands on the intellect and skill set of police officers. To master our skills which include decision making ability we cannot be afraid to use tactical decision games and after action reviews as a catalyst to mastery.

I want to conclude with the fear factor and its importance. It has been my experience many police officers and administrators are afraid to use these techniques. They believe it’s an admission of guilt to wrong doing on their part. To those of you who fear or are leery of these methods of training and learning I say this; nothing we do is routine, nothing! Conflict and violence are riddled with complexity and unknowns and no two situations unfold identically, there is always something novel, be it, the people involved, or the location we find ourselves in. Even if it is the same location and the same people involved their intent, motives and emotions may be different from one day to the next. Risk and time are also factors to consider. As Carl von Clausewitz said, “countless minor incidents, the kind you never really foresee, combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls short of the intended goal.” We can’t get it perfect despite our best efforts because there are just too many variables when human adversaries collide. What we can strive for, is a better and more desirable execution. Learning from falling short of the intended goal is what a learning organization is all about and law enforcement is or should be a learning organization. We owe it to ourselves and to those we protect to harness every lesson possible.

The basic concepts behind good decision making and tactics are not all that complex, nor are they particularly hard for the average police officer to understand and comprehend. The difficult thing is in applying those concepts to a specific tactical problem. It is here where the development and mastery of decision making and tactics come in. Understanding the essence of conflict is a struggle between two hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills, trying to impose itself on the other. Conflict is a process of continuous mutual adaptation, of give and take, move and counter move. It is critical to keep in mind that the adversary is not an inanimate object to be acted upon but an independent and animate force with its own objectives and plans. While we try to impose our will on the adversary, he resists us and seeks to impose his own will on us. Appreciating this dynamic interplay between opposing human wills is essential to understanding the fundamental nature of conflict and hence the difficulty in getting it correct while adapting tactics. Human conflict is an extreme test of will. Friction, uncertainty, fluidity, disorder, fear and danger, moral, mental and physical forces are its essential features. We never eliminate these features completely so we must learn to take “effective action” despite them.

In law enforcement there is no substitute for experience, no substitute for the intuitive experience that comes from repeated practice. Decision Making exercises and critiques are the practice field for the tactical leader and officer. If we as individual officers and as a profession are not willing to collectively learn from our own on the job experience and history in an effort to continually educate ourselves to, improve safety and effectiveness, we will have failed to protect ourselves and the communities we have sworn to protect.

I will close with this great message from MAJ John Schmitt; “Experience is a great teacher. Unfortunately, ours is a field in which experience can cost us dearly. As Field Marshall Sir William Slim wrote of taking over British forces in Burma in 1942 ‘Experience taught a good deal, but with the Japanese as instructors it was an expensive way of learning.’ We are professionally obligated to do whatever we can to gain whatever experience we can without paying the full price. That is precisely why we study past campaigns and precisely why we should play tactical decision games.”

Now it’s time to master your decision making and tactical skills.

Stay Oriented!