Communication: A Crucial Variable in Tactical Decision Making Author: Benjamin Zaiser

A number of fatal police uses of force in North America have recently drawn public attention to the way police interact with citizens and, thus, make tactical decisions. The shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Sammy Yatim in Toronto, Canada (see video clip below), as well as the arrest of Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York, figure prominently and have led to a re-evaluation of the training police officers receive in many places across the globe. Building on the UK’s National Decision Model, the Police Executive Research Forum clearly stresses the often neglected importance of interpersonal communication, which it concludes to be critical for a proportional, lawful, accountable and necessary use of force. Successful communication minimizes the risk of harm to both officer and citizen.

We understand communication as a manifestation of the thoughts, emotions, beliefs and attitudes underlying the Tactical Decisions of any party of an encounter between police and citizen. Correspondingly, Tactical Decisions are transmissions of these cognitions, which are perceived, processed and reciprocated by the other party, perpetuating (or ceasing) the interaction. As a result, the communicative dynamics between officer and citizen do not only set and mediate the context, within which law enforcement personnel have to make split-second decisions on whether, when, against whom, and what force to use. They also facilitate implementation and enforcement of such decisions. Hence, interpersonal communication is not limited to mediating information between officer and citizen. Much more importantly, it determines the nature and shapes the course of the encounter. As an interactive and mutual constitutive process caused by officer, civilian, and often also third parties, social cognition and communication is a crucial variable in Tactical Decision Making.

Understanding the communicative dynamics underlying Tactical Decision Making bears great potential for utilizing the corresponding insights for better informed decisions and safer encounters between officers and citizens, beyond the classic disciplines of hostage negotiations and crisis intervention. These insights are the goal of the Tactical Decision Making Research Group’s expanded focus on social cognition and the psychology of interpersonal communication during critical and major incidents.

Last fall, surveillance footage of the Toronto Transit Commission has been introduced as evidence to the currently concluding trial against Toronto Police Constable James Forcillo, who shot the above mentioned Sammy Yatim. At 1:18 minutes, fatal shots are fired.

The complete, synchronized surveillance footage can be viewed at the Toronto Star.


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