Blue Line

Increasing safety on the street: How smart police officers use situational awareness to improve safety

July 3, 2023  By Drew Moldenhauer

It is of the utmost importance for first responders to always be finding ways to improve safety. By ensuring they understand how to develop and maintain situational awareness, while working in high-stress, high-consequence, time-compressed environments, we can achieve that goal. Departments should always be looking to identify opportunities for improving high-risk decision making outcomes and implement strategies to help members improve critical thinking and resilient problem-solving skills. As a result of doing this, departments often share with members that they are better equipped to develop and maintain situational awareness. They also make better decisions in emergency situations.

Police officers tend to have great situational awareness due to the environment they work in, but there are always ways to improve your situational awareness—the lessons learned can then be used by everyone. There is a three-step situational awareness development process:

  1. Perception: Gathering intel about what is happening (size-up)
  2. Understanding: Comprehending the meaning of the intel (sense-making)
  3. Prediction: Anticipating the outcome of future events (visioning)

Dynamic decision making

Situational awareness is the foundation for dynamic decision making.

Officers must make dynamic decisions in their job every day. Dynamic decision making involves making high-stress decisions that are:

  1. High-risk: The decision-making environment is very hazardous;
  2. High-consequence: Decision errors can cause catastrophic outcomes; and,
  3. Time-compressed: Quick decisions are essential due to rapidly changing condition.

Dynamic decision makers usually only get one chance to get it right. By improving situational awareness police officers tend to make better dynamic decisions on the job.


Something we don’t tend to think about as police officers is: do we train to fail? A lot of people don’t understand what I mean when I ask that question. This is a very important lesson that we tend not to think about during training.

Let me show you a couple examples; we train to fail when we train with stop sticks. I can remember training with these very important pieces of equipment, and we were training the wrong way. We would be in a very controlled environment without any stress, and we would work on just throwing them. The problem with this is when you’re going to be deploying stop sticks, the environment will be very dynamic and potentially dangerous. Your body and mind will be stressed to the max. The first thing you should be thinking about is your safety and where you’re going to take cover before deploying the stop sticks. If you don’t think about where to seek cover, there is a very good chance you will be struck by the vehicle being pursued.

There are many videos out there where you can see officers not seeking cover as they deploy stop sticks. My guess is these officers were never trained to do so in a stress-induced environment. This is what leads to officers getting hit by vehicles and possibly killed. We need to start training under stress and train officers to seek good cover before they deploy stop sticks. This will create positive mental training scripts stored in their brains so they will be ready when the time comes.

Dynamic decision makers usually only get one chance to get it right.

Officers are also being trained to fail on the firing range. When police officers go to the range to qualify or for yearly firearm training, they’re typically in a controlled environment. Their heart rate is low, and they’re told to fire on the command of “gun” or some similar command.  This can be detrimental to officers because in a real shooting, officers will be under extreme stress; by hearing the command “gun”, this could cause officers to have an accidental discharge of their weapon. One way to fix this would be to get the officer’s heart rate up by having them do an exercise beforehand, and then have them asses a target that rotates and from there, they will need to decide to shoot or not to shoot.

In all of my firearm training on the range, I was never taught to not shoot, it was always on the command of “gun” that I should fire my weapon. By having a rotating target that shows an unarmed innocent person and then an armed suspect, you’re training officers to make a shoot or don’t shoot decision under stress, which will lead to better results on the street.

Overcoming complacency

In law enforcement, we are very prone to becoming complacent on the job. According to Kevin Gilmartin, author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, most police officers die on duty between year 10 to 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 the driver opened their door, they hopped out and started screaming “just kill me”. Thankfully, he did not have a weapon on him, and I was able to de-escalate the situation, but he caught me by surprise and had the tactical advantage on me from my being complacent.

The complacency within the members of 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.

In summary

Situational awareness helps police officers, their supervisors and their trainers become safer while working in high-risk, high consequence, time-compressed environments. Hopefully by reading this article you have understood some of the complexities of situational awareness and its impact on decision making in friendly, easy to understand ways. The goal of this is to help you and those you work with go home from work, whole and healthy, every day, to the ones who love you/them.

Editor’s note: The thoughts expressed here are further expanded upon in Drew Moldenhauer’s book, How Smart Police Officers Use Situational Awareness to Improve Safety. If interested, you can get 10 percent off by using the code BLUE38.

Drew Moldenhauer 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 holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University.

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