Often times when I am talking with police officers about the role of situational awareness and casualty incidents, especially the ones that have recently occurred, they share with me their opinions and frustrations about the performance of the police officers and the decisions made by command staff. If I have learned anything, it’s that police officers are very opinionated and, in general, are not very understanding or forgiving when assessing errors of their peers.

Stated another way: Police officers are quick to judge. I used to be this way also. Earlier in my career I would ask: Why were they doing that? Now, I ask: Why did it make sense TO THEM to be doing what they were doing at that moment in time? Asking the latter question opens my mind up to learning. You see, I can offer all kinds of opinions as to why I think the police officers were doing what they were doing. But I cannot possibly know the answer to the latter question without asking the people directly involved.

It is critical to learn everything possible about why casualty events occur so the lessons can improve the safety of all police officers.  My students often look at a police videos and make a quick judgement about what they see.  I tell them we need to take a moment and understand the officer’s point of view.  We have to factor in that we’re using hindsight to judge their actions.  An officer has a split second to respond to a rapidly evolving event.  They have to make a decision that they will live with forever.  After the event, observers and critics have all the time in the world to judge their actions.

Recently, I asked my students if it’s ever acceptable to shoot a suspect 17 times? Most of my students said absolutely not and that would be excessive force.  I then played them a video out of Chicago where it showed an individual not listening to police officers.  He had a large knife and charged at a female officer.  She tried tasing him twice with no success.  The other two police officers had to shoot this man 17 times before he fell.  Even after that, he was still clinching onto the female officer he was trying to stab.  I believe I proved my point and the students understood.

Unfortunately, in society today there are many people who want to judge the work of police officers.  These critics have never worn our uniform or even done a ride-along.  Their perspective is from the outside and they have never had to make the decisions police officers are faced with every day. I believe this quote by Theodore Roosevelt sums it up the best:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Drew Moldenhauer’s Advice

When police officers stop judging and start learning, situational awareness will improve. Borrowing from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Stop judging the performance of fellow officers and seek to understand why the actions and decision they made, at the time of the casualty event, made sense to the them.

Everyday life:

Judging is so easy to do.  We can sit back and judge nearly every incident out there.  However, are we just a critic?  Or are we the person in the arena?  Have some respect when you hear headlines of a bad action done by an officer.  Pay close attention to the factors that led to this incident happening.  Don’t be so quick to judge.  Think of what the officer perceived and understood at the time of the incident.


Discuss the process your department uses to learn from your near-miss and bad incidents.

Discuss the process you use to learn from the near-miss and bad incidents that occur in other departments.

Discuss the value of having a facilitated debriefing (conducted by an independent facilitator) to help your organization learn from near-miss and casualty events.

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].