Low-Cost Training In Crisis Decision-Making That Still “Makes ‘em Sweat”

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Don’t have the money for a bells-and-whistles training simulator? Don’t have the time for realistic live role-playing?

Despair not!

If you have paper and pencils and a reality-based imagination, you can still prepare your officers to react immediately with good decisions in life-or-death crises, according to Dr. Laura Zimmerman, a research psychologist whose insights into police decision-making have earned her a PhD and a job assignment to improve the way officers think under stress
For low-budget, time-pressured training, she advocates what she terms a “low-fidelity” learning format called DMXs (Decision-Making Exercises). These, in effect, are “war games” of the imagination, in which officers give written responses to scenarios that are challenging, ambiguous, potentially assessed as high-threat, and then they engage in a lively give-and-take dissection of each others’ solutions to the problems posed.

“DMXs help officers to better recognize danger cues, question assumptions, seek and sort relevant information in a chaotic environment, deal with uncertainty and changing goals, and meet other cognitive challenges they commonly face in high-stakes, fast-paced, tactical confrontations,” Zimmerman says. “These exercises build mental models in the officers’ memory that they can flash back to in a crisis when they don’t have time for a lot of pro-con analysis.”

Zimmerman, formerly a certified law enforcement academy instructor in Texas, is now a senior scientist with Klein Associates, a division of Applied Research Associates Inc., in Fairborn, OH, a firm that, among other things, designs training programs for the military and public service agencies. Her master’s thesis focused on techniques for enhancing memory in eyewitness interviews, and her doctoral dissertation dealt with strengthening law enforcement decision-making during critical incidents. She’s now engaged in expanding Klein’s involvement in police training.

Recently she wrote an article describing DMXs for the ILEETA Use of Force Journal. In an interview with Force Science News, she elaborated on how the process works and why it can add value to any training program.


Ideally, Zimmerman explains, DMXs are integrated into a 3-prong training strategy that also includes computerized simulations and live role-playing exercises. But even by themselves they can be highly effective. “They’re low-cost, very flexible, easy to set up, and adaptable to a wide variety of training environments,” she says.

Up to 20 trainees at a time can manageably participate. The class should include old hands at street work, as well as less-experienced officers. If only recruits or officers with limited experience are being trained, spare instructors should join the audience to offer some of their experience-based insights.

The class instructor distributes and then reads aloud a typewritten scenario about 2 pages long. A map of the scene where the action takes place should be included, and for the discussion later, a blow-up of the map should be posted where it’s visible to all trainees.

The scenario should depict a volatile, in-progress situation with problems that demand immediate attention. The trainees, working alone, are given 2 to 3 minutes to write out what they would do to handle the situation for the best possible outcome.

“Of course, that’s more time than they probably would have on the street to consider their options,” Zimmerman says. “Ideally, you want to match the time frame of real life, but you have to allow for writing time. Limit their response time as much as possible, just enough time to write a reasonable answer. Even 3 minutes gets their blood pressure up and makes them sweat.”


“The scenario needs to be engaging, not dry,” Zimmerman points out. “It has to be the start of a good story that gets the officers involved and makes them wonder, What’s going to happen next, What am I going to do now? Like the real world, the story should be complex, contain ambiguity, leave some information missing or uncertain, and present a problem that allows for more than one acceptable solution.”

It’s key that the situation not have a single “perfect solution,” she noted in her ILEETA article. Solutions with “a mixture of pros and cons [will require] the trainees to weigh these factors and consider consequences. Many subtle factors and critical decisions should be present throughout the scenario, rather than one incident-ending decision. You want multiple, feasible, realistic choices. And, of course, you want to avoid no-win circumstances.

“Scenarios should contain important (as well as insignificant) cues that allow trainees to do such things as spot early signs of problems, adjust their approach to the situation, gather resources, plan cover and escape routes, etc.

“Trainees should not have a crystal-clear picture of the situation. Officers enter real situations with a great deal of uncertainty and do not have access to important information as they proceed. A characteristic of expert decision makers is their ability to handle uncertainty. Trainees need to develop strategies that work effectively in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity.”

While effective scenarios may be drawn from actual incidents, Zimmerman advises that it’s better not to use local addresses, beat numbers, or place names. “Give places and people fictitious names so you remove preconceived notions officers may have, based on what they experience in their daily work environment,” she explains. “Preconceived notions may skew how they perceive threats and lead to inappropriate decisions, especially among newer officers. You want the scenario to create a world of its own, outside the context of any particular place.”


Here’s a scenario that Zimmerman considers to represent an “intermediate” level of difficulty as to decision-making:

You and your partner of 2 years are in a marked patrol unit with standard equipment and are assigned to a low-income neighborhood with many historic buildings and landmarks. The neighborhood, the most run-down in town, is notorious for drug activity, prostitution, and petty crimes. As part of an effort by the mayor to restore it and re-attract families and tourists, your chief has mandated a zero-tolerance policy on petty crime, which includes tracking down and arresting residents with outstanding warrants. Neighborhood people are unhappy about the tightening of police control. Many are openly hostile to officers on patrol.

At the start of your shift, your sergeant hands you and your partner a stack of arrest warrants and tells you to serve the one for Jay Johnson before doing anything else. This warrant is left over from the last shift, and the officers from that shift have information that Johnson is currently in his house. The warrant is for a probation violation from an identity theft conviction.

When you and your partner knock on the door at Johnson’s residence, an elderly woman answers and states that her son Jay Johnson is currently at work and won’t be home for 3 hours. As your partner talks with her, you observe that she looks to be white, whereas the description you have of Jay Johnson is that he’s black. In addition, this woman looks to be too old to be the mother of your 19-year-old subject. Your partner asks for Jay’s work address and the woman asks you both to come inside as she goes to get it.

No one else is in the living room as you enter, but you detect the distinct smell of marijuana in the air. Your partner stands and speaks to the woman as she writes down the address. You walk through the room and glance into the kitchen. You see that no one is in there and that there is no outside exit. Then you go out another doorway into a hallway, where the smell of marijuana is stronger.

You radio in to confirm that the address on the warrant is correct, and to advise that drugs are present. While you wait for a reply, you look down the hall a see a girl about 3 to 4 years old walk out of another room and into the hall.

As you take a few steps toward her, you suddenly hear your partner yell out sharply from the living room, “Put the gun down!” and hear a man’s voice yelling angrily. The little girl turns toward you and starts screaming and crying. She is standing between you and the front door, in an open doorway into the living room.

Your back-up unit is still en route to your location – 5 to 10 minutes away. What do you do? How do you assess the situation? Where do you position yourself? How do you communicate with your partner?

In a time limit of 3 minutes, determine what course of action you will take and write out why you took that action, with justification.


“Trainees will not learn from DMX scenarios unless they discuss their solutions and analyze their action choices,” Zimmerman stresses. In fact, the discussion is probably the most important part of the exercise.

Often it begins with a volunteer reading for the class his “solution” to the troublesome scenario and the instructor then encouraging other trainees to interactively compare and contrast his approach to their own. Before long, a variety of resolutions and rationales will be in play.

With provocative questions, the instructor can get the officers to verbalize why the situation at hand was difficult…what factors led them to chose the courses of action that they did…what cues they were paying attention to…what missing information would have helped the most…what other actions were considered and why they were ruled out…what elements of the scenarios were important and what were merely distracting or irrelevant…what were the officers’ advantages/disadvantages compared to those of the perpetrator…when and why in the scenario their assessment of the encounter changed…what would likely go well and what wouldn’t in the solutions offered…how might the situation have been avoided…and so forth.

The focus of the discussion needs to be on “situation assessment and decision-making challenges,” Zimmerman states. “How do they interpret the situation and determine what decisions may or may not lead to successful outcomes? With everyone verbalizing their thought processes, they learn from one another and see danger cues and creative resolutions that they may not have thought of on their own.”

If the discussion sags at any point, the instructor can stir it to life again by altering some elements of the scenario: what if it had occurred at night instead of during the day…what if a second offender suddenly interceded…what if your partner was a rookie fresh from the academy rather than an experienced officer…what if the weather were different…what if your pistol malfunctioned…what if your partner got shot…etc. In Zimmerman’s experience, thorough critiques can take an hour or more and still not be wrung dry.

The concentration is on “training cognitive skills rather than tactical or procedural skills,” although the instructor may also find it useful “to ask trainees to discuss appropriate force levels at various points in the episode, and to discuss the pros and cons of possible strategic and tactical maneuvers” to broaden the scenario’s training value.


In a class that contains officers with a variety of experience levels, younger officers are able to absorb the cues and thought processes that guide the decision-making of seasoned veterans. In this way, they gain valuable experiential knowledge that might otherwise take them years on the street to develop independently. And experienced officers can be jarred from ruts they’ve unconsciously slipped into by hearing fresh ideas from less time-worn colleagues.

DMX training gets high marks from participants she has surveyed, Zimmerman says. They tend particularly to find the discussions valuable because they reinforce that there are usually multiple options for successful resolutions-”more tools they can add to their toolbox,” she observes.

“DMX training helps officers build memory patterns of cues, expectations, creative ways of handling difficult situations. When they’re in a real-life crisis on the street, they may recognize patterns in the situation that match something from their mental model that will help them effect an instant appropriate reaction.”

Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, agrees. “Good spontaneous decision-making comes out of training and experience that is already embedded in your brain,” he says. “In most street situations, you don’t have time to carefully analyze all your options. You just have to react.

“The more training and experience you’ve had that relates to the problem you’re confronting, the better you can react. You just sense what to do. That’s how highly proficient athletes work. In an instant, they comprehend the moves they need to make and they act, without consciously thinking about it.

“But to react automatically, to make good decisions that fast, you need a reservoir of valid experience you can draw upon to help you. Unfortunately, officers often don’t do what’s most effective in a crisis situation. A number of factors may be involved in that, but certainly prominent among them are a lack of training and a lack of experience.

“For trainers, DMX scenarios and discussions are a low-cost, low-tech means of helping to fill up the reservoirs of the officers they’re responsible for preparing.”

[Note: The article from the ILEETA Use of Force Journal referenced in this report contains an additional sample scenario. More information about Klein Associates/ARA can be found at: www.decisionmaking.com. Dr. Zimmerman can be reached at: lzimmerman@decisionmaking.com.]

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