The second guessing of police officers decision making process continues to come into question. This could be from a political standpoint or simply a philosophy on how to best practice policing strategies. Many second guess each decision without taking the time to understand what goes into the process itself. At times, few situations lend zero time to make a decision and those are typically the ones pounced on. It is my belief that this could lend some insight to how a decision is made and possibly help those who do not; begin to back the blue…
Police Decision Making Process
by: Chris Grollnek
Occupations within the criminal justice system are diverse at different levels of importance and responsibility. Specific positions within the system create the need to make decisions that are broad in range. Decision-making spans from minor details to life threatening critical choices that affect the outcome of a conflict. Processes and practices are important to understand about decision-making methods of individuals and groups. An individual’s decision is evaluated at reasonable stages to assist in correcting the choices of the individual if the decisions prove incorrect. Group decisions are more difficult to manage if the appropriate processes are not used to make the final decision.
The criminal justice system offers opportunities in a diverse collection of occupational specialties. Career paths within the system include clerical, enforcement, security, management, investigative, specialized investigations, and numerous other rewarding jobs. The broad range of these careers share the specific goal of human interaction. Engaging in conversations and actions with others requires decision-making at different levels of the cognitive thought process. Individuals base decisions on logic as well as emotional thought processes inclusive of their needs, desires, and environment.
The criminal justice system applies decision-making for the main purpose of problem solving. Making a decision during a conflict ensures a review in a formal setting to determine if the decisions were rational or irrational. The evaluation includes measuring the effectiveness of the outcome influenced by the initial or series of decisions made leading to the resolution. Decision-making as it pertains to law enforcement officials and representatives is a means to resolve problems and conflict.
Decision-making in a group setting takes on a different dynamic than the individual thought process. When a group of representatives within the criminal justice system are brought together to form a team, no matter the purpose, the decision-making process changes. Instead of a single individual thinking for himself/herself, the team has to collaborate to form an opinion that will lead to a group decision. Several formal processes are available for groups to use when formulating a decision and to identify, which decision is mutually beneficial for all.
The consensus decision-making process considers several ideas initiated by a group. Identifying the best option through discussion will shape a plan once a general agreement is reached. This is similar to brainstorming by the foundation of developing ideas. The main difference between brainstorming and consensus decision-making is only realistic and viable ideas are considered. Another group model for decision-making in business planning models works well for operational planning. Within the last four to five years, the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis has become popular within criminal justice agency specialized teams. Operational planning is an essential tool for the units to organize high-risk operations and planners have begun to inject the SWOT analysis as part of the planning phase. Examining the strengths of the plan assists in providing the final solution. Evaluating weaknesses ensures the planners can backfill gaps to provide the correct safety calculation. Opportunities are a large portion of the planning phase because it broadens the perspective of the planners looking at alternate sources for resolution. Threats are similar to what is in use nationally with the addition of threats from a legal and liability standpoint.
The work break down structure model is also popular in team decision-making but offers little in creative discussions. The work break down structure creates opportunities for decisions limited by its capacity. Delegating specific tasks to specific persons limits the scope of the decision-making process removing individual input (Decision Making, 2010).
Groups and teams in law enforcement agencies strengthen the response(s) to a specific issue. Increasing numbers in complex situations creates a safer surrounding as well as injects a series of checks and balances into solutions. Covert and overt narcotic enforcement teams are an example of groups independent of structured divisions. These teams are trained and trusted assets of department commanders and essential to a law enforcement agency. The ability of the team’s decision-making process is tested during each operation with little room for error.
All undercover operations require team planning and operational assessments for each venture. Each member of the team has a specific objective he or she is responsible to achieve during the operation. Failure of any portion of an individuals’ assignment increases the risk exponentially to the team and the operation. The decision to initiate an undercover operation requires team support, commander’s approval, and the undercover officers commitment to the task (Fuller, 1998, p. 10).
Groups and teams created for the purpose of responding to the needs of the public tend to create liability by their mere formation. “An undercover team is defined as a group of people working together during covert missions and in support of operation” (Fuller, 1998, p. 7). Specialized teams specifically create risk as they are held to a higher standard of achievement. Narcotics divisions within the criminal justice system are extremely demanding and decision-making is the cornerstone of every operation. The proper decision-making techniques exercised within these units and teams attempt to conduct safe and successful operations. A safe operation is achieved at the end of the operation with no one injured or killed. “The operation is successful when the charging and prosecution of the targeted suspect(s) is completed” (Fuller, 1998, p. 10).
Decision-making in any occupation offers challenges unique to each encounter. Decisions need to be rational and explainable. In narcotics, agencies spend endless time each month pre-planning and de-briefing operations to evaluate every decision. A narcotics unit working to solve issues using nontraditional methods can make a department superior. The opposite side of the spectrum can be devastating to public trust and commander’s careers if the decision-making is not kept in check.
The Atlanta Police Department (APD) suffered a devastating setback in 2007 when the decision-making ability of the narcotics unit was brought into question. Members of the narcotics unit shot and killed Kathryn Johnson, a 92-year-old woman during the botched warrant service at her residence in November 2006. Officers were accused of “raiding” the wrong house the date Johnson was subsequently killed. The team members decided to fabricate evidence in an effort to cover up their dereliction. Records of drug purchases were falsified and marijuana was planted at the scene.
The officers of the undercover narcotics unit crippled the department’s trust by a series of poor decisions that escalated into criminal actions. Johnson’s home was not the first where false evidence was presented in an effort to pursue search warrants. The former narcotics officers, Gregg Junnier, Jason R. Smith, and Arthur Tesler were charged and subsequently sentenced to federal prison terms (Dewan & Goodman, 2007).
Junnier and Smith received lighter sentences for cooperating with federal investigators. These two officers received 10-year sentences in a Federal correctional facility in exchange for their cooperation. Federal agents began to investigate the level of corruption within the APD narcotics unit and found it went to the top ranks of the police agency. The case exposed disparities within the entire department uncovering a “culture of corruption.”
Junnier and Smith testified that their team regularly lied to obtain search warrants, fabricated evidence, and routinely falsified records of illicit transactions. Junnier and Smith testified that their actions were not for financial gain but instead to circumvent the Constitution. The federal investigation uncovered that the core of the corruption stemmed from a series of bad decisions and choices. The decisions made by this group of officers stemmed from pressures of achievement throughout the department. The Chief of Police dismantled the agencies narcotics unit comprised of more than 150 officers along with other “at-risk” units (Jeralyn, 2007).
The International Association of Under Cover Officers (IAUCO) board members conducted a training session in 2007 to discuss the APD issues during their board meeting in New Mexico. Methods for training and a complex evaluation of the decision-making process for undercover officers were the focus of the meeting.
IAUCO used the SWOT analysis to expose several shortcomings in team decision making and pre-planning. The SWOT analysis was beneficial to the team to ensure a script was followed for the decision-making and evaluation. Analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the major decisions the APD made, exposed shortcomings in the boards decision-making. Opportunities and threats naturally rose to the top of the lists to be documented for the analysis.
Each member of the board received course construction assignments. The assignments included dozens of outlines as they pertained to undercover agents and officers. At the conclusion of the summit, the hundred plus decisions made were reevaluated to assist the entire community of undercover officers (IAUCO, 2000).
The example set by the IAUCO demonstrated the importance of decision-making processes. This group of board members came together to evaluate and analyze a series of poor decisions leading to a culture of corruption. After careful consideration, discussion, and back tracking, the productions of formal processes for law enforcement are available for agencies across the United States.
Wikipedia. (2010). Decision Making. Retrieved from
Fuller, C. (1998). The Art of Undercover Techniques and Survival. St. Simons Island,
GA: Covert Operations Program Specialists, Inc.
Dewan, S. & Goodman, B. (2007, April 27). Prosecutors Say Corruption in Atlanta
Police Dept. is Widespread. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Jeralyn. (2007, April 27). “A Culture of Corruption” in Atlanta Police Department.
TalkLeft. Retrieved from http://www.talkleft.com/story/2007/4/27/13722/1209
International Association of Undercover Officers, Inc. (2000). Officers. Retrieved from
Police Decision Making Process
Filed Under: Police Decision Making Process/ UofP Grollnek 2011