Understanding Problems Range in Complexity and Designing Police Operations

“There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing to play.” ~James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

I am just following the rules most often is stated in organizations that are risk averse and with mutual trust lacking. To make up for that trust these non-trusting leaders of the organization develop policy and procedures, SOPs and checklists meant to prevent mistakes when dealing with crime, conflict and violence. They perceive crime, conflict and violence as a finite game with deterministic outcomes, when in reality they are dynamic evolving infinite games and probabilistic. When ends are confused and conflicting, and there is not yet a clearly defined problem to solve, it is through the process of framing the complex situation that we may organize and clarify both the ends and possible means to achieve them. I watched a video by Simon Sinek "The Finite and Infinite Games of Leadership” which got me to thinking about policing and how we approach problem solving. The challenge:  How does the police leader and first responders understand the operational environment; frame a complex, ill-structured problem; design a broad course of action that gives direction to planning; and know when to adapt the approach when circumstances change in order to achieve outcomes and accomplish the assigned mission and intent?

Policing problems range in complexity, and can be thought of as ranging from simple or well-structured to complex or ill-structured. Tame, technical or deterministic, finite problems are structured and less complex, crime scene processing and the collection and preservation of evidence is a less complex example. It’s a technical and tame aspect of policing and hence process, policy and procedure, SOPs, checklists will help ensure this is done correctly. Finite, adaptive, probabilistic or wicked problems are ill-structured problems and their complexity levels are much higher. An example of this type of problem would be an active shooter, which is made up of violence, uncertainty, disorder, victims, adversary(s), kill zones, contact teams, rescue teams, staging areas, command posts, rally points, students, teachers, fellow employees, loved ones, etc. We must understand the problem or more importantly the type of problems we are attempting to frame and solve. We must as well, understand the system friendly and adversarial. A simple way to categorize systems is determining whether they are open or closed. Closed systems, such as electrical grids or lines of communication, can be easily understood and actions taken regarding those systems may be predicable with reasonable certainty. On the other hand, open systems involve economic, political and social interaction. They are dominated by humans, who are both adaptable and unpredictable. Thus, actions taken regarding those systems cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty.

Systems theory supports a major component of operational design (how we approach solving problems) and our efforts to understand (or frame) the operational environment. Systems theory is the transdisciplinary study of systems in general, with the goal of explaining principles that can be applied to all types of systems in all fields of research. The military defines a “system” as a “functionally, physically, and/or behaviorally related group of regularly interacting or interdependent elements; that group of elements forming a unified whole.

In “An Introduction to System Theory and Decision-Making,” Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper provides the following summary of one author’s perspective of systems:

“Heinz Pagels, the noted American physicist and science writer, identified two kinds of systems, those that are structurally complex and those that are interactively complex. He chose the term structurally complex, recognizing that the more parts in a system and the more orderly the arrangement of those parts the greater is the system’s structural complexity. Structurally complex systems produce rigid, lockstep, and generally predictable behavior. Many modern machines possess this characteristic; they have numerous parts arranged in a specific manner, but they operate in only one way or they do not operate at all. Often we can understand structurally complex systems better by studying their parts separately. They are systems where the sum equals the parts. Structurally complex systems are also known as linear systems.

For the second kind of system, Pagels selected the term interactively complex because he understood that in these systems the lack of a fixed structure and the significant freedom of action among the parts is what makes the systems dynamic and unpredictable. The more freedom of action the parts enjoy the greater are the dynamics of the system. Interactively complex systems create multifaceted, rich, challenging, and potentially volatile behavior. Actions within the system often produce disproportionate outcomes. Even interactive systems with only a few parts can exhibit surprisingly rich and novel behavior. The interaction among the parts and the unanticipated emergent behavior is what makes these systems unique. We benefit little when we separate the parts of an interactively complex system and study them in isolation. In the act of separation the system loses [sic] its coherence and the parts lose their meaning. Interactively [complex] systems are not additive systems; indeed, they are greater than the sum of their parts. Interactively complex systems are also known as non-linear systems.”

Another related way to understand structurally and interactively complex systems is in the distinction of determined (finite) systems and adaptive (infinite) systems.

  1. Finite (determined) systems can be identified by the linear relationship between the inputs and the outputs of the system. Determined systems are comprised of components that must also behave in a linear, predictable manner. Examples of determined systems include automobiles, airplanes, and most modern machines. Examples of collective human activities that behave like determined systems are marching bands, synchronized swimming, and the use of line and column tactics in warfare.
  2. Unlike determined systems, infinite (adaptive) systems are identifiable by the nonlinear and often unpredictable relationship between inputs and system responses. Adaptive systems are comprised of “agents”. Identical inputs to an adaptive system may produce different responses each time they are introduced, making the adaptive system difficult to predict with any precision. In adaptive systems, the connections between the agents are critical but the individual agents are not. If one agent fails, the system will continue without it. Further, the agents have latitude to respond individually within a set of simple rules, producing novel, creative and emergent system responses. Given the complexity created by the near infinite possibility of system interactions and responses, these systems are often referred to as complex adaptive systems. Many human organizations behave as a complex adaptive system, especially when there is little centralized control and the behavior of the members (the system’s agents) adheres to a common set of rules. Contrasting with the examples above, collective human activities that behave like adaptive systems are jazz ensembles, swim meets, and unconventional warfare.

In policing a profession full of honorable people looking to help others, who’s frontline or street level police officers have the power to take peoples freedom away and when reasonable and necessary to accomplish this, they can use force, and hence full of a great and awesome responsibility, it is imperative that we take our training and developing people more seriously so that officers understand problems, can frame and solve them. Essential to police operations is the ability to understand an operational environment comprised of complex, adaptive, and interacting systems.  One way to think of the operational environment is as a set of complex and constantly interacting political, economic, social, information, and infrastructure (criminal justice system), and other systems…. The nature and interaction of these systems will affect how the police plan, organize for, and conduct operations.

“First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it.” ~William James

As with other theories, the challenge is one of describing how to apply the above descriptions to a practical police situation. Whether the problem is described as simple or complex, policing must sufficiently understand the problem in order to successfully design, plan, and execute operations. It is not an understatement to say that understanding the nature and varying complexities of problems is fundamental to the officer’s ability to frame problems, and thus solve them.

Stay Oriented!