All Police Actions Take Place in an Atmosphere of Uncertainty

"Certainty, risk, and uncertainty. In everyday language, we make a distinction between “certainty” and “risk,” but the terms “risk” and “uncertainty” are mostly used as synonyms. They aren’t. In a world of known risks, everything, including the probabilities, is known for certain. Here, statistical thinking and logic are sufficient to make good decisions. In an uncertain world, not everything is known, and one cannot calculate the best option. Here, good rules of thumb and intuition are also required." ~Gerd Gigerenzer, Risk Savy

When it comes to police all actions in conflict take place in an atmosphere of uncertainty. Be it a police officer initiating a motor vehicle stop, serving a warrant, investigating a report of erratic driving, responding to a disturbance or any other set of circumstances, this atmosphere of uncertainty is real and hard for those who have not experienced or though deeply about, this atmosphere, to understand.

Uncertainty pervades police interactions and conflict in the form of unknowns about the adversary, about the environment, and even about the friendly situation. For example lets look at a common interaction an officer initiating a motor vehicle stop. In todays day and age of technology a police officer can learn a lot about the vehicle and its owner by running its plate. Good tangible information on the year, type and make of the vehicle, is learned. Whether or not the vehicle is registered, insured and inspected. Who the owner if the vehicle is and their motor vehicle or criminal history, if any. What you do not know is if the owner is the actual driver. You will not know this until you make contact and begin to interact with the driver and any other occupants of the vehicle. You also do not know their motives and intent for the reason you stopped them. Were they just in a hurry to get home or go to work? Is there some type of emergency unknown to the police or any countless other reasons someone may have violated a traffic rule. There could also be more sinister or criminal reasons for there actions. The driver and any other occupants know their motives and intent, and why, they committed the violation. The police officer does not know anymore than what he has seen and learned and continues to learn as the situation and interaction, unfolds.

Once an officer gathers information, he has to weigh the risks and then develop a course of action based on what he believes is going on. There is still uncertainty because what he believes may not be the case. But even so, he must still investigate while considering other resources available and the risk. For instance once he stops a motor vehicle he must consider whether or not there is there back-up officers available, if so does he need back-up? If none is available, should he proceed without it? Should he wait or consider other options? Does the non-verbal communications taking place in the vehicle, during the stop tell him anything? If there is a lot of moving around, reaching under seats or across to the glove compartment? If so is it innocent driver just gathering his information, license and registration or could it be a weapon of some kind?

While police try to reduce these unknowns and the uncertainty by gathering information, we must realize we cannot eliminate them. The very nature of conflict makes absolute certainty impossible; all actions in conflict will be based on incomplete, inaccurate, or even contradictory information. At best, we can hope to determine probabilities. This implies a certain standard of tactical judgment: what is probable and what is not? Through this judgment of probability we make an estimate of our adversaries motives and act accordingly. But, having said this, we also realize that it is precisely those actions which fall outside the realm of probability that often have the greatest impact on the outcome of police interactions and conflict.

This is where those intangible factors (those things that cannot be seen or measured, difficult or impossible to define or understand; vague and abstract., i.e. motive, intent, danger, commitment, pre-threat indicators, non-verbal communications, gestures and micro-expressions, etc., etc., etc.) begin to play heavy on the mind of a police officer and require tactical judgement and taking calculated risks, which is much different than being rash.

We must learn to respond in an environment of uncertainty, which we can do by developing simple, flexible plans; planning for contingencies; developing standing operating procedures; and fostering initiative among street cops. By its nature, uncertainty invariably involves the estimation and acceptance of risk. Risk is inherent in conflict and is involved in every police interaction. Risk is also related to gain; normally, greater potential gain requires greater risk. Further, risk is equally common to action and inaction.

Using the motor vehicle stop as an example lets look at the uncertainty and risk and how action and inaction can influence different outcomes. Keep in mind situations matter, context is everything. What works today may not work tomorrow, time, space and the person your interacting with dictates the options you choose.

The police officers makes the determination that this vehicle stop is a routine stop and decides to approach the vehicle without back-up to interact with the driver who is the sole occupant of the vehicle. As he begins the approach he observes the occupant continually looking back over his left shoulder and also through the operators side mirror, intently at the officer as he approaches. He also notices an intent look of contempt on the occupants face that he observes through the side mirror and reads the lips of the occupant which he believes said F*&@ this cop! Does this change an officers perception and the risk in continuing the approach? It should! But what now?

Does the officer move to a better tactical position, and wait on back-up officers? Does he dray his firearm and begin to give orders to the occupant? What if the occupant is indeed armed and attempts to shoot the officer? Does the officer chooses action and return fire? What about innocents in the potential line of fire, will this choice of action put them in more jeopardy? What if the occupant drives away, does the officer wait or pursue? If he chooses inaction and allows him to drive away what risk is their to the public? What risk is their to the public if the officer chooses action and pursues the occupant now in a moving vehicle, does this add to the risk? While during the pursuit, the subject begins to shoot at the officer, does the officer choose action by shooting back from his moving vehicle? What has the risk level risen to now or would it be more risky to allow the now criminal subject to continue his shooting, that may put the public at risk of stray bullets? We could go on hear page after page about action and inaction considerations an officer must make in determining the risk versus gain or better yet, how gaining the advantage and stopping threats entails various levels of risk.

The practice of concentrating police resources at the focus of effort necessitates the willingness to accept prudent risk. However, we should clearly understand that the acceptance of risk does not equate to the imprudent willingness to gamble the entire likelihood of success on a single improbable event. Part of risk is the ungovernable element of chance. The element of chance is a universal characteristic of police interactions in conflict and a continuous source of friction, that slows down a police officers decision making cycle (OODA Loop).

Chance consists of turns of events that cannot reasonably be foreseen and over which we and our adversary have no control. Continuing with the motor vehicle pursuit example, these turn of events could be a pedestrian or other vehicle entering the path of the pursuit, causing either a collision or the vehicles to swerve, lose control and then collide with some other vehicle or pedestrian. The uncontrollable potential for chance alone creates psychological friction. We should remember that chance favors neither belligerent exclusively. Consequently, we must view chance not only as a threat but also as an opportunity, which we must be ever ready to exploit.

Uncertainty is a factor prevalent in police interactions. With 20/20 hindsight, in the aftermath of a police incident, uncertainty is now known and much easier to dissect and criticize from our armchairs. But in real time, real world, real space conditions uncertainty is real. The taming of chance created mathematical probability. I will use the term known risk or simply risk for probabilities that can be measured empirically, as opposed to uncertainties that cannot. The danger is that by extending probability to everything, it is easy to be seduced into thinking that one tool—one school solution, a policy and procedure, a checklist, is sufficient for dealing with all kinds of uncertainty. As a consequence, other important tools, such as rules of thumb, experience, judgment, intuition, innovative tactics, adaptability, are left in the cupboard, causing even more uncertainty for police.

In an uncertain world, statistical thinking and designed school solutions, policy and procedures, checklists, SOPs alone are not sufficient. Good rules of thumb, intuition, judgment, gut feelings are essential for good decisions, in uncertain environments. When dealing with uncertainty police officers must be able to use their experience and sense-making ability's to solve problems as they adapt to rapidly changing situations.

Stay Oriented!