In law enforcement, decision-making during a critical incident or in-progress crime is a burden because of the tense and uncertain circumstances. One way to lighten that load is to relieve yourself of trying to live up to an artificial standard, especially one you were never going to achieve in the first place.

As a new Sergeant assigned to the Patrol Division, I certainly had my hands full with new responsibilities. By far the most important task I became in charge of was supervising the response to critical incidents (responding to an armed or barricaded suspect, coordinating the capture of a fleeing suspect, etc.)

When the “hot call” was broadcasted over the radio, my new assignment called for me to make dozens of decisions. I would dutifully get to work trying to understand what was occurring and then deciding on an appropriate response.

Early in that new assignment, I was plagued by one feeling that looking back likely slowed down my ability to make decisions. That feeling added friction to an already challenging decision-making process. The feeling I had was me thinking I had to make perfect decisions. I felt that every decision I made during that critical incident was supposed to somehow be flawless.

My desire for perfect decision-making was caused by a few different factors. Number one: I didn’t want to get somebody hurt. Additionally, I didn’t want to “get in trouble” for making a bad decision. Next, I didn’t want to fail or let anyone down. Lastly, I had an insatiable desire to be really good at the task. As altruistic or self-serving as any of those reasons were (you can be the judge), one thing that eventually became clear was that I was holding myself to an impossible standard.

As a human, I was bound by the constraints of human performance limitations. As much as I wanted to make perfect decisions, it was literally impossible for me to accomplish that because of the nature of my human imperfection. I wasn’t a computer, I was just a fallible human trying to make decisions.

After coming to terms with that, I made a realization about the circumstances under which I was trying to make those “perfect” decisions. Critical incidents generally include things like danger, “fog” and tension as well as time and resource competitive dilemmas. These types of circumstances certainly don’t lend themselves to making perfect decisions, especially when one has to decide quickly.

Another revelation I had was that as the incident commander, I was receiving imperfect information. Information being fed to me at the command post was generally incomplete, inaccurate or not robust enough to absolutely indicate the best course of action. This meant that with imperfect information coming in there would naturally be imperfect decision-making going out.

I also had to become comfortable with making decisions that later might be judged. When one works in a consequential career field, one must accept that their actions will be scrutinized.

Once I embraced a more realistic standard for my own decision making, I was able to make better decisions, without trying to live up to an unachievable standard. That is not to say that those decisions were not still difficult because they were. That is also not to say that I was not still required to perform to a high standard because I most certainly was. What embracing a more realistic standard did was help to speed up my decision making because I was no longer burdened by feeling I had to make a perfect decision.

If you are a police supervisor or will be in the future, I would encourage you to relieve yourself of the burden of making perfect decisions. You, me, and every other human taking on that job will naturally make imperfect decisions. You will have plenty of other things to worry about without being slowed down by that unnecessary burden.

If you’re looking for specialized training that can help you make great decisions, please consider enrolling in anyone of our critical incident response courses including:

Critical Incident Response
Response to the Non-Criminal Barricade®
Practical De-Escalation and Tactical Conduct©
Supervisor’s Seminar

Scott Savage is the founder of Savage Training Group. Learn more about his background here.
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