Curiosity killed the cat, but it’s not curiosity that is killing police officers, it’s complacency contributing to flawed situational awareness. What does it mean to be complacent? I could offer you the Webster’s dictionary definition, instead, I’d like to offer you a definition based on my observations of those who suffer from the affliction.


To believe that bad things only happen to other people; To fall into a comfortable rut of apathy – laziness; To have enjoyed success for so long as to believe all actions will result in successful outcomes; To rely on knowledge and skills that have grown stale for lack of practice and renewal; To develop a sense of indifference – to lack concern for – one’s safety and well-being. Let’s break this down now by expounding on each component of the definition.

In Law Enforcement, we are very prone to becoming complacent on the job.  As a matter of fact, most police officers die in the middle of their career.  According to Kevin Gilmartin, author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, most police officers die feloniously on duty between year 10-15 of their career.  Complacency is a big contributing factor to this.

Some of the ways I have shown my complacency on the job have to deal with traffic stops and alarm calls.  I remember making traffic stop after traffic stop and using good tactics and nothing ever bad happened.  Until one time when I let my guard down and used poor tactics.  I stopped an individual and causally walked up to the car thinking to myself this is just another routine traffic stop, when he opened his driver’s door, hopped out and started screaming “just kill me.”  Thankfully, he did not have a weapon on him and I was able to deescalate the situation, but he definitely caught me by surprise and had the tactical advantage on me from my being complacent.

I can also remember going to a lot of alarm calls in my career.  99% of the time the alarm calls were false alarms, were set off by the cleaners, or animals inside of a home tripped the alarm.  However, one time I was called to an audible burglar alarm covering glass break.  I arrived thinking this would be just another false alarm.  To my surprise it wasn’t, it was the real deal.  Someone had done a smash and grab at one of our local gas stations and took the cash register.  Here again I did a poor approach to the building and was being very complacent which could have got me killed.

Believing Bad Things Only Happen to Other People

This is often rooted in a mindset of judgment. While watching a video or reading about a casualty incident, the complacent police officer becomes a judge. The mindset is not one of trying to understand the root cause of what happened and to extract the lessons behind the lessons.  Instead, the complacent police officer wants to ridicule and offer judgment upon the misfortunes of others. One who is judging, cannot learn. This causes the lessons to be missed and perpetuates the belief that bad things only happen to other people.

Falling into a Comfortable Rut of Apathy – Laziness

The energy required to develop and maintain competency is immense. It requires both a cognitive and physical effort to develop the knowledge and skills essential for top performance. Any deviation from being exceptionally prepared will result in a consequence, right? Hardly, in fact, the vast majority of cases with large deviations from top performance have no consequence.

That is both a blessing and a curse. If such deviations always resulted in casualties, the results would be catastrophic. For that, we are blessed. Yet it is the same lack of consequence that promotes apathy. The proof that one needs not work as hard, rests in the successful outcomes achieved despite a reduction in knowledge and skill development/maintenance.

Relying on Knowledge and Skills That Have Grown Stale for Lack of Practice and Renewal

For skill and knowledge to be retained and useful, they must be practiced over and over again… and then over and over AGAIN… rinse and repeat. The process of learning and relearning skills is never ending. The pathways that access knowledge in our brains are strengthened through repetition. Just because something was learned in school 10 years ago does not mean the skillset is still flawless. Every expert in every field practices incessantly to keep their skills sharp. So must police officers!

The complacency within an organization is often a byproduct of the organization’s culture, undisciplined leadership and individual member mindsets. This can change. The journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step. Do something today… take a step toward reducing complacency.

Everyday life

Complacency happens in everyday life all the time.  This can be dangerous when working with power tools or using knives in your kitchen.  Think of the last time you were operating a chain saw.  Did you get complacent as time went on?  How about the last time you were slicing up some food.  Did you cut yourself because you became complacent?  We need to stay focused so we don’t become a victim to complacency.


  1. Discuss what ways you combat complacency.
  2. Discuss what training you implement in your department to avoid becoming complacent.
  3. Discuss how you can assist your partners if you notice they’re becoming complacent.


Written by:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.  He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He can be reached at [email protected].