You've Got To Have an Ace in the Hole. Are You Prepared to Adapt and Win on the Street?

“Adaptability is an effective change in response to an altered situation. Adaptability is not speed of reaction, but the slower, more deliberate processes associated with problem solving.” ~Don Vandergriff

You've got to have an “ace in the hole” a little secret that nobody knows. Life is a gamble, a game we all play, but you need to save something for a rainy day. You've got to learn to play your cards right if you expect to WIN in life. Don't put it all on the line for just one roll. You've got to have an ace in the hole.

If you're headed down a one way street and you're not sure it's the way you wanna go. In money or love, or all the above, Have a little more than what you show. When life deals out a surprise have a few surprises of your own. No matter what you do, no matter where you go you’ve got to have an ace in the hole.

So the song goes, as it talks of life, love and all the above. With cops being killed in the line of duty at a 60% higher rate than 2 years ago, and 2 cops already tragically lost in 2012 as of this writing, this ability to adapt and shift tactics in my view is a big missing factor in our training and in our thinking in the law enforcement profession. This “ace in the hole” concept conjures up thoughts of being agile, flexible and being prepared for the worst. In other words being adaptable, being prepared to adjust our responses to meet the changing conditions we encounter on the street. Are we willing to make the shift in mindset to that of one that includes adaptability?


In law enforcement there is a pronounced tendency at all levels of law enforcement to control by rules—each problem seems to result in more rules (policies, regulations, directives, etc.) this tendency often creates friction in decision making of an officer. Friction defined is that which makes the apparently easy difficult. It is the things that run through our minds useful or not, that slow decision making down. This is not to say that dealing with people when emotions are high is easy, it certainly is not. In fact dealing with people in conflict is one of the most unpredictable things we can encounter in life cop or not.

Policies, procedures and checklist are teaching cops what to think and do, instead of HOW to think and do. Despite the talk to the contrary, we are not creating and nurturing problem solvers in law enforcement. Instead we are creating rule and checklist followers and this, is dangerous and part of the problem when it comes to officer safety and effectiveness. Dangerous in the sense that the types of circumstances cops handle are dynamic, rapidly changing, complex situations that require walking, talking, thinking cops. Policies take the thinking out of the equation.

For years, those of us who train other officers thought policies and procedures were the answer. In reality, as soon as circumstances change, to something an officer on the street has never seen before, many do not adapt. They cannot think of a new plan. They fail to adapt to the changes they see, and either freeze, while trying to figure out what’s going on or what to do, or they carry on unaware. They wind up moving forward emotionally charged with yesterday’s plan, policy or procedure that does not work today. Their actions do not fit the circumstances and they stay in a battle they are not able to win with the chosen method or tactic they believe they are suppose to use which puts officer(s) in jeopardy. Might this tendency to standardize tactics, policies. procedures and practices be causing us to lend the initiative to our adversaries and giving those cop killers more of an advantage than they already start with?

Officer Created Jeopardy (OCJ) comes from a failure to adapt to changing conditions. OCJ is enhanced by emotion that instills a false sense of urgency verses a true sense of urgency, complacency verses awareness, habit verses innovation, and personal attributes that stifle insight into a tactical encounter. OCJ also comes from the lack of knowledge and/or the inability to apply knowledge in a strategic and tactical way to the changing conditions, considering the factors of time and risk. Officer Created Jeopardy can also be created, within an organization, where distrust and lack of support are the prevailing feelings for action taken outside of procedural guidelines. Does this sound familiar? If so how do we fix this problem?

It’s crucial to understand tactics is both art and science

Understanding tactics is an art and science we all must strive to grasp. Applying tactics based solely on policy and procedure, or “we have always done it that way… is a critical decision,-- one that should be based on the conditions officer(s) are dealing with, and not a canned response.

Decisions that affect the outcomes in a given set of circumstances require interaction, insight, initiative and innovation on the part of officer(s), and the ability and flexibility to make decisions in the heat of the moment. Critical decisions certainly have a direct effect on officer safety and outcomes.

The (often) missing link of strategy and tactics is operational art–or, applying what we know to a given set of circumstances. Operational art is the link between ends (strategy) and our means (tactics) to reach the safe and effective outcomes we are striving for based on the unfolding conditions, of not yesterday’s situation but today’s. Operational art is applying our knowledge to the situation at hand, and considers the moral, mental and physical dimensions of conflict, as well as the methods and tactics we use in implementing our strategy to protect and serve no matter what the call or circumstances are.

The ability to adapt to changing conditions in rapidly changing circumstances, and to seize the initiative, requires the ability to think on your feet. We must adapt our response to the circumstances not the other way around. Adapting to the changing conditions is what makes a true professional. It’s what separates the true tactical artisan from the theorist. The ability to adapt is what separates the doers from the talkers.

Winning on the street requires you; observe, orient, decide and act

Conflict is time competitive; observation, orientation, decision and action cycles. ~Col John Boyd

Life (policing) is a gamble (considering time and risk), a game we all play, but you need to save something for a rainy day (the day you face the ultimate challenge of life or death). You've got to learn to play your cards right (tactical options) if you expect to win in life. Do you have and are you prepared to use your ACE IN THE HOLE? Thanks to country music artist George Strait and his song “Ace in the hole” for inspiring this essay on officer safety.

"Situation Awareness implies one takes a holistic approach to identify threats & opportunities through analysis and intuition; then follow through with timely decision and prosecution. Situational Awareness is also known as Coup d'oeil, or Stroke of the Eye." ~Swot Hunter

Stay Oriented!