Perspective

Need for Critical Thinking in Police Training

By Michelle Ridlehoover

A stock image of bullet casing and crime scene tape.

As you read this sentence, you hear the rapid-fire sound of gunshots in your building.

The time it took to read that first sentence is about 5 seconds faster than the average perception-reaction of an officer deciding to shoot or to stop shooting.1 Officers’ response times in such a situation directly relate to how quickly they can sort through a sea of stimuli during a lethal encounter. The subsequent reaction depends upon their observation and decision-making abilities.2

Although some choices must be made in an instant, others allow more time to think about the best course of action. In both cases, critical thinking is vital to the safety of both the officer and the community.

Experience vs. Analysis

Many law enforcement training programs have shifted from a mind-set of officers as warriors to one of officers as guardians. Still, police agencies continue to experience challenges as individuals sometimes over- and underreact to stimuli and face fallout from officer-involved shootings.

Some of these flawed decisions come from inexperience. Across the nation, law enforcement agencies struggle with attrition. This means losing vast amounts of knowledge and experience through retirements, resignations, and turnover. Thus, many officers make decisions without the benefit of extended experience and guidance.

Law enforcement continues to grapple with maintaining community trust and effectively employing media. Some individuals attribute much of this struggle to the immediate and vast reach of social media after officer-involved shootings. Societal perception and media presentation always may prove challenging for agencies. By promoting critical thinking, rather than rote direction-following, throughout officers’ careers, leaders can empower them to make and explain unbiased decisions. Critical thinking is an integral part of law enforcement decision-making. All departments should weave it into their cultures, from the academy to the field.

Michelle Ridlehoover

Inspector Ridlehoover serves with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C.

What does the traditional police academy look like? For some, it entails instruction where recruits must listen, take notes, memorize material, and not argue, while instructors provide all questions and answers. In this model, recruits master content but do not gain the cognitive, moral, and epistemic development necessary to become independent critical thinkers.3

Upon graduation, departments pair new officers with training officers who also may expect them to “sit down and shut up.” After several weeks of doing only what others tell them to do, these new officers finally are certified to ride by themselves—armed with a weapon but not necessarily with any critical thinking ability.

Police training programs often incorporate scenario-based training and set requirements for learning codes and laws. Yet, society continues to see the outcome when officers and other officials incorrectly assess situations, sometimes with devastating results.

When officers move from training to the force, they often struggle to remember policies and have not yet built enough practical experience to guide their decisions. At this point, critical thinking ability may be the only thing enabling them to quickly, efficiently, and safely evaluate a situation. In some departments, even as officers progress in their careers, critical thinking is not promoted in professional development training and there is little or no opportunity for leadership development.

Historically, detectives and investigators are the police personnel people think of as critical thinkers. However, each day, officers make street-level decisions that affect lives, civil rights, community safety, media perception, and departmental liability—to name a few issues. Their agencies, then, cannot afford not to equip them with training in critical thinking.

The law enforcement training culture must shift away from debate over whether to act as a warrior or a guardian. Instead, it must continuously emphasize critical thinking throughout the career of every law enforcement officer—whether they must act in any given moment as a guardian or as a warrior.

Effective Application

Some forward-thinking private sector companies enhance their employees’ critical thinking abilities. One excellent example is an engineering firm that builds platforms for integrating, managing, and securing data. At the same time, it incorporates an interactive, human-driven, machine-assisted analysis of problems consumers face.4 Its engineers deploy in the field and work directly with customers to analyze problems and create solutions together—a true partnership not unlike community policing.

Importantly, the company’s leaders acknowledge that mistakes sometimes occur. Their employees complete regular after-action reports, discussing what did and did not work for each project. When things go wrong, employees are not disciplined or penalized. Instead, they review and analyze what happened to determine how to move forward in a positive, more educated manner.

In its effort to recruit the right people, the company encourages empowerment and creative thinking in potential employees. Leaders encourage personnel to join not only projects that complement their skills but also those that can help turn their weaknesses into strengths.5 On the other side of the spectrum, we might not expect a police department to allow an officer who struggles with drug cases to join a vice unit—perhaps leading to a lost development opportunity for both officer and agency.

This engineering company has developed a culture that fully embraces critical thinking among its staff members, allowing itself to grow through the personal development of employees. Such a symbiotic relationship is one that law enforcement would do well to mimic.

Decisions in High-Stress Situations

The U.S. military has begun combining critical thinking training with the recognition-primed decision model. This has resulted in a reduction of errors in battlefield simulations.6 In recognition-primed decision-making, an individual uses experience-based intuition combined with training and current situational cues to quickly determine the best course of action.7 The military’s training program focuses on errors people make when they fail to think critically while making decisions.8

These errors include overlooking important details, misinterpreting information, and making incorrect assumptions—all of which can lead to poor decision-making. The training program highlights awareness of these errors and teaches specific techniques that people can use to overcome them.9

Law enforcement agencies often use the Incident Command System when managing complex all-hazard situations. It also is employed on a smaller scale when daily police situations require the moderation of multiple rapidly developing scenes.

Under this system, incident commanders (IC) make decisions on scene to effectively mitigate the issue. They do this under very stressful conditions and with severe time constraints, often with little information.10 An IC is not necessarily the highest-ranking official present, but rather the person most experienced with the situation. Many times, a shift watch commander must transition from serving as IC to managing media inquiries on site.

Critical thinking ability is vital both for safe street operations and for appropriate command decision-making. Mistakes can bring about harmful long-term ramifications. Many people who fall into the IC role end up in the position repeatedly due to their experience and time spent in the department. When these individuals retire, it leaves a dangerous gap that many of the younger, newer, less experienced officers struggle to fill. A robust critical thinking training program can help fill this gap.

“Critical thinking is an integral part of law enforcement decision-making. All departments should weave it into their cultures, from the academy to the field.”

Importance of Adaptation and Instruction

To maintain officer and citizen safety, promote departmental reputation in the community and media, and manage litigation issues surrounding officer-involved shootings, it is imperative that law enforcement agencies incorporate critical thinking throughout their training. Improved critical thinking and decision-making lead to more positive outcomes and situation management, ultimately improving both the department and community.11

Conversely, neglecting to foster critical thinking impedes an officer’s ability to see the totality of a situation. Some officers feel that they “know at a glance” the cause of something after briefly examining the situation.12 This can lead to confirmation bias—ignoring, perhaps inadvertently, any facts that contradict one’s initial assumptions. In cases involving deadly force, this type of thinking can have devastating consequences.13

In this era of law enforcement where many officers are retiring and fewer are joining, it is vital to understand that the current generation is unwilling to “sit down and shut up” instead of actively engage. Rather, they will find more motivation in a training program that incorporates critical thinking. Agencies’ abilities to retain and promote these individuals will improve greatly if they guide recruits to critically think through their decision-making processes.

Conclusion

Many traditional law enforcement training programs do not teach officers how to think in this way. Even when discussing biases and critical thinking in classrooms, some instructors do not truly teach officers what it means to think critically. Obedience is encouraged while arguments are discouraged, and professional development training is computerized or shortened with no built-in feedback or guidance on performance.

Critical thinking does not simply entail figuring out the right solution. It involves realizing why you came to that conclusion; understanding how your own biases, based on culture, genetics, and previous experiences, affect your choices; and striving to improve those decisions.14 This skill should permeate training in such a way that it is not in a single class of its own, but rather part of a culture of critical thinking that applies to all instruction.

“[C]ritical thinking ability may be the only thing enabling [new officers] to quickly, efficiently, and safely evaluate a situation.” 

Inspector Ridlehoover can be reached at Michelle.Ridlehoover@dc.gov.

Endnotes

1 Jason Helfer, “Why So Many Shots Fired? Understanding Police Officer Reaction Time to Stop Shooting,” Lexipol, July 25, 2018, accessed July 11, 2019, https://www.lexipol.com/resources/blog/understanding-police-officer-reaction-time-to-stop-shooting.
2 Ibid.
3 Shmuly Yanklowitz, “A Society with Poor Critical Thinking Skills: The Case for Argument in Education,” Huffington Post, August 15, 2013, accessed July 11, 2019, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/a-society-with-poor-criti_b_3754401.
4 “About,” Palantir, accessed July 11, 2019, https://www.palantir.com/about.
5 Alex Karp and Peter Thiel, interview by author, October 2018.
6 Gregory T. Smith, “Identifying the Knowledge and Skills Needed for Successful Critical Thinking and Decision Making on the Fire Ground,” National Fire Academy, July 2012, accessed July 11, 2019, https://www.hsdl.org/?abstract&did=728516.
7 Matthew Lehman, class lecture, Intelligence Theory and Application for Law Enforcement Managers, FBI National Academy, Quantico, VA, December 7, 2018.
8 Smith.
9 Michael A. Johns, “Critical Thinking: Plugging (Or Moving) A Hole in Our Swiss Cheese,” 2009, accessed July 11, 2019, https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/critical-thinking%3A-plugging-(or-moving)-a-hole-in-Johns/53104b49b623e47f6a7f7176ccf2f936b85750b7.
10 Smith.
11 Ibid.
12 Scott DuFour, “Mastering Essential Police Skills: Critical Thinking and Writing,” In Public Safety, March 12, 2018, accessed July 11, 2019, https://inpublicsafety.com/2018/03/mastering-essential-police-skills-critical-thinking-and-writing.
13 Ibid.
14 Johns.