What Do OODA Loop’s Mean to the Street Cop, Wanting To Become “World Class” Tacticians? | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

Three officers respond at 3AM to the call of a disturbance. When they arrive, there are three people present, two males and a female. One male is intoxicated; I will only focus on him for the purpose of this example. Intoxicated male is spoken to by responding officers. They tell him to call it a night and to go to bed and sleep it off. He says he will and turns to go into the house. The officers continue gathering information for the incident report. While speaking to the other two people involved the “intoxicated male” comes back outside to talk, he is relaxed but is again told to go back inside or he will be placed in protective custody for the night. The officers spend another 5 minutes gathering information, and are about to leave when they see the “intoxicated male” standing outside the front door waving good bye. The officers decide to bring him to the police station for his safety.

At the station the booking process proceeds, during which the “intoxicated male” talks about police beating up innocent people and asked several times if they were going to beat him up. After booking, the sergeant and one patrol officer went to put the man in a cell for the night and all hell broke loose. A fight broke out in which the subject attempted to escape. He punched, kicked, clawed and scratched three officers inside the station and made his way outside where a fourth officer got involved in the altercation. An attempt on an officer’s gun was made by the subject without success thankfully. In the end four officers were injured on duty, three were out for over a week, the other returned to duty that morning. In the end we were lucky no one was seriously hurt.

What caught my attention later were the reports filed by the officers involved. Every report, I mean all of them stated “The individual was cooperative throughout contact including the booking procedure until we went to place him in the cell.” This statement begs me to ask a few critical questions: Why did these veteran officers, observe the signs and signals and yet, not orient to the possible dangers? Why did they use the term “cooperative” when clearly he was not? How do we develop a better way of exploring unfolding situations so we gather actionable information in real time, so we make sound tactical decisions throughout the encounter?

On the street when danger presents itself in an obvious manner; “we cops know it is a bad set of circumstances we are walking into” a fight with shots being fired, a felony car stop, a violent domestic call turned hostage situation, high risk warrant service, etc. in these types of circumstances we cops, handle ourselves quite well, most of the time. We control our emotions and put ourselves in “win” positions. We establish command, identify kill zones, set up inner and outer perimeters, we set up command posts and staging areas and bring in all the resources necessary to bring about a successful resolution. In these known dangerous encounters our senses are alive and fine-tuned; we are observant and paying attention to every detail of what’s going on which helps us orient to the potential dangers and we make decisions and take actions that allow us gain the advantage and win these types of encounters.

The focus of this writing, I would like to discuss the unknown risk calls we handle, the disturbance, the car stop or encounter with the unknown individual, the alarm, and the trespasser, the field interview, etc. These so called “routine” things we do that are getting us injured and killed. Why is it happening? Is it physical skills or lack thereof? Is it Training? Is it fear? Fear of getting in trouble with the administration, fear of being sued, criticized, ridiculed by the media? Is it complacency or the “it will not happen here attitude?” Is it lack of emotional control and a false sense of urgency? What about over confidence or lack thereof? Does our mental conditioning have us believing we are better than we actually are, or has our training developed a bias for action, over reflection and tactical problem solving? Probably all of these contribute some degree to the friction that slows down or effects negatively the decision making process and makes us vulnerable to attack.

I do not want to get into statistics in this article but one that has stuck out in my mind, is from the FBI Officers Killed in the Line of Duty publication that states; “in gunfight situations where law enforcement professionals were killed in the line of duty 98% of the time the suspect fired first.” 98%! This statistic has scared the hell out of me for years now. I thought why are we in affect being ambushed in 98% of the gunfight situations we handle on the street? What are we missing in the street that allows the bad guy to get the upper hand on us in 98% of the situations? Law enforcement officers all get physical skills training i.e. defensive tactics, firearms, impact weapons, OC spray, handcuffing techniques, CQB, active shooter, etc. so, why are we still getting caught in disadvantageous positions?

My opinion; we are not paying attention to the subtle signs of danger that lurk in the fog, unknown and unpredictability hidden in another’s motives and intent, that prohibits us from obtaining accurate information in a timely manner. We cops all too often, let our guard down and put ourselves at great risk, because we simply have not developed sound tactical habits of looking for the signs and signals of danger. Oh yah! We look for the “furtive move” to the waist band or under the seat, the fists that comes up and punch directed towards us or, the emotional person doing something so outrageous we know we got trouble. But what about the cops being lured into complacency and killed not even getting their gun out of the holster or worse yet getting their gun taken and used against them by the bad guy? What “force multipliers” are we cops missing in our observations and tactical decision making toolbox that put us at a disadvantage and how do we reverse this to significantly increase the tactical advantage?

How Do We Gain The Tactical Advantage?

To be more prepared we must better understand what conflict is and how it unfolds if we are to gain the needed advantage.

This is a shortened version of the Marine Corps definition of conflict:

“The essence of conflict is a struggle between two hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills, trying to impose itself on the other. Conflict is fundamentally an interactive social process. Conflict is thus 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.”

Simply put, having a win mentality is necessary, but so is acknowledging that the bad guy has his own! There are at least two people involved in the conflict and both compete in time through their “observation, orientation, decisions and actions.” We cops must never lose sight of this crucial fact that at least two people participate in conflict and both have their own objectives and plans. Our goal as cops as we interact with people on the street is to constantly be observant and explore the situation from first contact until we resolve the situation and clear the scene.

The Boyd Cycle (OODA Loop) and Gaining the Tactical Advantage

“Machines don’t fight wars. People do and they use their minds. You must get into the minds of humans for that’s, where the battles are won.” ~Col John Boyd

So what can we do better to gain the advantage and keep it throughout our interaction with a suspect? How do we continually improve our situation awareness so we can manage things safely and effectively? The answer lies within the concept known as the OODA Loop aka; the Boyd Cycle.

Col John Boyd discovered that conflicts are competitions between you and the suspect(s) using Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action. These cycles known as OODA Loops, divides understanding into FOUR processes each feeding the next. 1) OBSERVATION: what we see through all of our senses, including our, sixth sense, 2) ORIENTATION: your understanding of what’s happening NOW, 3) DECISION: what do we DO, and 4) ACTION: behavior or DOING WHAT WE DECIDED. The idea of the OODA loop is that the advantage goes to those that can complete the decision cycle fastest. It stresses that situational awareness allows you to set the tempo by creating friction, or, slowing down a suspect(s) decision making cycle. This suggests that disrupting a suspect(s) thinking process and improving your own, is the crux to winning.

The OODA Loop is not a onetime thing; it’s continuous throughout your encounters. Because our actions change the situation, the cycle begins anew and repeats itself throughout the encounter. Simply the O-O-D-A Loop gives us cops the advantage through better SITUATIONAL AWARENESS FROM BEGINNING TO END! By observing the obvious AND the all-important subtle signs and signals that manifest themselves in a suspect(s) behavior patterns, body language, facial expressions, what they say and how they say it, etc. we can reasonably predict outcomes and act accordingly. By being alert and aware of the information exchange between “us and them” and our environment, we are able to stay ahead of the “action versus reaction curve” in the mental dimension of conflict allowing us to outmaneuver a suspect with sound tactics.

The goal as Boyd put it is the “ability to operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than an adversary enables one to fold an adversary back inside himself so that he can neither appreciate nor keep-up with what’s going on. He will become disorientated or confused. Unless such menacing pressure is relieved, adversary will experience various combinations of uncertainty, doubt, confusion, self-deception, indecision, fear, panic, discouragement, despair, etc., which will further: Disorient or twist his mental images/impressions of what’s happening: Thereby Disrupt his mental/physical maneuvers for dealing with such a menace: Thereby Overload his mental/physical capacity to adapt or endure: Thereby Collapse his ability to carry on.” In a simple word we “confuse” him with the unexpected. And when the timing is right you move in and control the subject. Make no mistake, like any other skill; outmaneuvering a suspect takes focus of effort to achieve.

Boyd said it best: “Machines don’t fight wars. People fight wars and they use their minds. You must get into the minds of humans. That’s where the battles are won.” The interplay of the human mind is the most critical aspect of winning. I am not saying the physical aspect is not critical, it is, you must always be able to do what needs to be done, but if you were Gandhi (communicator), Bruce Lee (hands on DT) and Carlos Hathcock (firearms) all rolled into one, “what a human weapon” you would be. With all these skills you could handle any situation; verbally, hands on defensive tactics or if necessary deadly force. But if you were not making good observations (using all your senses), that tell you something about the unfolding situation (orientation) then the decisions you need to make and the actions you need to take would not get done because you were not fully aware of your surroundings. How do you take “initiative” decide and act, if you do not observe and orient to a tactical problem? Understand this! Winning a fight actually has very little to do with what you are armed with and a great deal to do with what you are thinking at the time, hence the importance of the OODA Loop to the street cop.

Using your past experiences as an opportunity to learn and be become “world class” tactician

In an after action review of the example described above, the officers involved (all good cops) stated, “they did not think of his coming out of the house after being told to stay in and sleep it off as a sign of non-cooperation, even after the second time, even when they were bringing him in.” When asked why they brought him in? They responded, “He was not doing what he was told.” At this point we all began to laugh a little although the circumstances were not funny the responses I got were both funny and alarming. We continued the discussion and agreed the individual was indeed non-cooperative and therefore a possible threat, requiring close “monitoring and control.”

Lesson: A fluid OODA loop (continuous and focused attention from start to finish) would have alerted these officers to the potential dangers sooner and help prevent dangerous altercations and injuries through sound tactical decisions and actions. To be, BETER THAN GOOD cops, and develop in “world class” tacticians takes having a great interest in what we do and developing an understanding of the WHY behind, what we do and the tactics we use. It’s important for the street cop to keep in mind that, in tactics, the most important thing is not whether you go left or right, but why you go left or right.

Meaning: We must understand why are we doing, what we are doing? The OODA Loop keeps you interested and exploring the tactical encounter from start to finish. Keeping interest and exploring enhances awareness or insight into tactical problems. Insight allows us to activate our imagination as to, how we decide and act in “real time” as we interact with a suspect and focus efforts on gaining the initiative. After all, what is the aim and purpose of strategy and tactics? Col Boyd’s answer, “To improve our ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances, so that we; can survive, on our own terms.” We do this by outpacing or disrupting our adversary decision making cycle in real time, real life situations.

The OODA Loop (Boyd Cycle) based on Col. John Boyd’s dedicated work and service to this great country is a tool every cop, should know and, understand thoroughly if we are to become better than good and continuously improve our safety and effectiveness on the street. Isn’t it time we focus our efforts in developing these skills? We’ll be discussing the “how to” here in the coming months.

Stay Oriented!


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