Pre-planning can be a key to successfully handling any law enforcement call from big to small. Pre-planning literally means to plan in advance. On critical events, pre-planning as an individual and with teammates can be the difference between a well-run call that allows officers to adjust and overcome sudden developments that are almost inevitable in the field and a call gone awry. Pre-planning should begin long before the call is handled — it should begin in training and preparation before the actual call. On the call, it should happen en route to the call; it can be codified in a quick conversation with teammates upon arrival and on approach to the target, and should continue with ongoing communication with teammates throughout the call.
A key to pre-planning throughout your career will be your individual preparation. Preparation for the individual officer begins well before the event occurs. (Note: The word “prepare” contains the prefix “pre-,” which means “before.”) The individual officer should begin to prepare for the event by being physically fit, mentally and emotionally ready, and tactically proficient. Officers must prepare ahead of time because the day chooses you. When the moment arrives, the time for preparation is past and reality begins. A reality with no preparation or pre-planning can be very unforgiving. At best, it ends with the officer physically surviving but dealing with unintended outcomes. At worst, the officer can lose the encounter, resulting in substantial injuries or even death. This article is not meant to suggest that officers who are killed on calls in the line of duty are officers who did not pre-plan. I firmly believe, despite preparation, that sometimes it is just your time to go. However, most critical incidents that go sideways expose a lack of pre-planning before, upon arrival to and during the event.
Pre-planning before the event is all about training. I consistently champion the value of training consistently over time a little a lot. Training can be through Department in-service such as AOST, RBT and DT training or done at the range. Officers can also seek outside LEO-based training through private resources or LEO training conferences. For this training to have pre-planning value, you need to retain it. I would suggest actually taking notes throughout the training. Effective notes list the name and date of the training, along with takeaways that capture key principles, fundamentals, policies, case law and techniques. These notes can be reviewed over time, meaning the techniques learned can be reviewed over time as well. You can mentally apply the training, principles and techniques covered in your training to calls you have been on or calls you mentally rehearse in your mind. The physical and mental rehearsal of your training is a critical part of pre-planning for actual calls and should be done routinely throughout an officer’s career. Physical repetitions should be done at least twice a week. Mental rehearsals should be done several times during a shift, to include active mental rehearsal while en route to every call.
The physical and mental rehearsal covered above can be done with a partner or your squad. I have trained above and beyond the Department-provided training with partners and eventually on a squad-based level on every assignment I have ever worked in my 20-plus-year career. Cops actually like training that is relevant and effective, and will participate if the training is conducted in a safe manner.
When officers are dispatched to a call, they should be mentally rehearsing potential scenarios based on the details of the call. If you are performing a car stop or a person stop, you should be rapidly assessing the stop, the environment and the potential scenarios that could happen. Assessment is based on why you are performing the stop, how many people you are stopping, lighting conditions, environmental factors plus anything else relevant to the officer at that time.
Let’s go back to dispatched calls. If I am alone, I am visualizing and running different scenarios through my mind. As I consider different scenarios, I am thinking of the needed resources, tactics and training that will lead to favorable outcomes to handle the potential call I have. This is not a process in which I turn every call into a STAR protocol or a SWAT callout. I consider the call for what it is to start, but I also consider how I will adapt if the call is inaccurate or goes south at some point.
If I have a partner in the car, I consider this to be a huge potential advantage on any call. That advantage is emphasized exponentially if I actually communicate with my partner. We can bounce stuff off one another and quickly run through pre-planning for the call we are headed to. We can also squander any advantage we have by not communicating or pre-planning while en route. In that case, we are simply giving a ride to two cops who are going to a call. It is disheartening to see officers heading to calls while jamming out to the radio, or arriving early to a call and parking down the street to wait for cover and jumping on their phones to play some game or surf social media while they wait. This time could be used to focus on the call and its details, review training and consider potential scenarios and outcomes. The easiest way to kick start any event toward a safe resolution for everyone involved (including the suspect) is to start communicating prior to the event and continue communication throughout.
Pre-planning and communication should include potential roles or resources needed, which can vary depending on the call. Contact versus cover, lethal versus low-lethal, hands-on versus security, etc. Even though initial roles can be “assigned,” officers should know that these roles can change rapidly. A big part of pre-planning to consider is the realization that these roles can change rapidly or not be needed at all. Officers need to be flexible and adapt, but having a plan and communicating that plan allows officers to get into a mindset that facilitates a trained response and kicks off pre-planning. Officers who pre-plan and communicate handle calls and make adjustments better than officers who don’t. If there needs to be an adaptation on the call (e.g., someone fills your role or it is not needed), it is much easier to “find work” and pick up a different role if you pre-planned. Your preparation, training and communication skills matter only if you use them.
If officers do not drive together, they should meet briefly upon arrival and communicate a plan of action. Once again, a key component of any plan is that it can change. We may need to adapt. However, by starting the process and communication prior to the event and the accompanying stress/elevated heart rate, officers are more likely to make key adjustments and respond in a trained manner. This leads to favorable outcomes. This meeting can be brief or longer, depending on the call and what is occurring. Pre-planning is not designed to hinder a response or design a “perfect plan.” It is designed to give the officers a coordinated and planned start to the event that gets them on the same page and responding as a team. A pre-planned response executed is better than a perfect plan not executed.
No amount of pre-planning can stop calls from going sideways or different than planned. Officers have to use force at times based on the suspect’s behavior. Officers must follow law and policy as they choose appropriate force options. A key consideration in analyzing an officer’s force is whether the officer felt a reasonable fear based upon the suspect’s actions. That reasonable fear is based on the officer’s fear of the consequences of his or her inaction (i.e., the injury or death that may occur to the officer or anyone else based upon the suspect’s actions if the officer does not respond to the threat).
An officer experiencing a reasonable fear and choosing a proper response is far more likely to occur if the officer regularly pre-plans for potential scenarios. Pre-planning allows the officer to experience fear based on training and preparation, not just emotion. A reasonable fear based on pre-planning and training is knowledge-based and much easier to articulate. A knowledge-based fear response as threats arise is far more likely to produce trained and appropriate responses that increase officer safety than a true emotional fear response. If you train consistently and don’t pre-plan during calls, you are not getting the true benefit of any training you are undertaking because the suspect may “surprise you” with resistance, leading to an emotion-based fear response.
Can you imagine a football team practicing and pre-planning for the game, then not arriving to the stadium early to meet and then not huddling before every play to have a plan? The real key is not the pre-game meetings or huddles. Those are important because we get on the same page and are thinking about what we are doing, not about a game on our phone. The key adjustments are made post-huddle, pre-snap, and even post-snap, through communication. The best defenses talk and communicate throughout the play. Run, pass, draw, screen, motion, etc. The best teams practice, pre-plan, communicate, act and continue to communicate. This formula captures the importance of pre-planning and how it can actually be implemented. Whether you are a football fan or not, there is a lot to be learned about how to successfully win on everyday police calls.
Train, prepare, pre-plan, communicate and act until your responses on calls come from a knowledge-based fear response and not an emotion-based fear response. Do I still get scared on calls? Sure. But my training, pre-planning and communication skills create trained actions as a result of my fear, not emotional, untrained responses. There have been times on calls when I actually felt really physically scared after it was over. When I thought about what “could have happened.” During the event, however, if we have pre-planned, that is often what comes out when the stress begins. If you are not afraid, this job is not for you. If you are not managing that fear with consistent training, pre-planning, communication and acting, it may not be for you either.