Split Second Decision Making

The other night, I had the opportunity to take a Block Two recruit out with me for the shift.  This officer, ‘Cst. X’, had completed the first stage of police training, and was part way through the practical side of training, before being due to head back to the Academy in a few weeks. 

Cst. X had learned and been tested on his knowledge of municipal, provincial and federal law as it applies to policing.  He had been taught how to use the equipment he had been issued, and had been run through a barrage of training scenarios before being approved for Block Two.  The night he came out with me, Cst. X had only been wearing the Vancouver Police uniform for six weeks.

Cst. X impressed me with his awareness of his surroundings, his tact and his questions.  He was eager to learn and was most interested in what he could do as a patrol officer to assist the Dog Squad when responding to a call.  As we talked about radio procedures, what to do if he got behind a stolen car, and how to treat a crime scene to preserve the start point for a dog track, Cst X asked what decisions dog handlers have to go through before deploying their dogs.  The resulting conversation covered a lot of ground, and neither of us knew Cst. X would soon be involved in a call that would demonstrate how quickly officers have to make decisions based on very little information.

As we were still talking, radio dispatched us to a break and enter in progress.  A home owner called 911 to report someone had broken into their tenant’s basement suite, and the suspect was still inside. Patrol units responded and contained the suite.  As we drove there, I explained to Cst. X several scenarios of what could happen.  The person inside could be related to the tenant.  The tenant was out of town and perhaps the person was a house-sitter.  The person inside could be a bona-fide crook, and if so, Cst. X would get to see Hondo in action.  Or the ‘person’ inside could really just be the sounds of pipes creaking, making the home owner believe someone had broken in.

We arrived at the scene and went to the suite door, which had been damaged.  One of the officers obtained the key from the landlord, and when we were ready, she unlocked the door and tried to push it open.  The door immediately caught on the security lock which had been secured from the inside.  Through the opening, I saw a man sitting on the couch – he jumped to feet, looked at us, and yelled when we announced ourselves.  He gathered a blanket to his chest, looking at us with wide eyes.  My first thought was, “Dear Lord, he has Down’s Syndrome”, and I backed Hondo off.  The man then tried to barricade the door shut, but we were able to force the door open, and officers moved in and took the man into custody.  

It was discovered later that the man did not have Downs Syndrome, even thought he had the flat facial profile, upward slant to the eyes and small ears usually associated with the condition (thank you KidsHealth.org for the information on the physical characteristics).  He was ultimately arrested for breaking and entering, and the investigation is still ongoing to determine links, if any, with the tenant.

Cst. X asked me why I had back Hondo off.  Even though we were responding to a break and enter with all the information leading me to believe the man inside the suite had committed a crime, I decided at the last second to not deploy the police dog based on my extremely brief observation about the man’s physical characteristics.  Turned out my observations were incorrect, but at the time, I did not know that.  There were a hundred other little contributing factors involved in that decision, and it came down to me trusting my gut instinct to back the dog off.  In this case, it was better to err on the side of caution.  Every case is different.

After hearing my explanation, Cst. X sat back and was silent for a few moments before he commented on how fast a police officer has to make decisions, especially in circumstances where there is a use of force.  I explained that each officer is responsible for their own ‘use of force’, and has to be able to articulate their own actions, regardless if their situation involved a traffic ticket, a hard arrest, or a shooting.  We, as police officers, are expected to remain calm under stress, and to make split-second decisions that could have life or death consequences.  It is easy to arm-chair quarterback these types of calls after the fact, but in the heat of the moment, you have to trust yourself to make the right decision.

At that, Cst. X took a deep breath, as if contemplating what a serious career he has ahead of him.  In truth, he does have a serious career.  He has been given a great amount of responsibility.  But if he is anything like most of the other officers I know, and I have the feeling he is, Cst. X will do us proud.

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