Police Officers: Decision Making and Behavioral Culture

The news has been polluted lately with stories of public outcry in response to poor decision making by police officers. But what do we know about how law enforcement makes decisions and how their emotions factor into the situation?

Police work is extremely stressful. Combine that with the subculture of law enforcement driving their impulses and expectations, and you have a powder keg of trouble waiting to happen in tense situations where life and death decisions are needed.

Police Officers

Types of Decision Making

Researchers who specialize in understanding how we make decisions have divided decision making up into two schools of thought. They call them System 1 and System 2. With System 1, decision making is more intuitive and instinctual based on emotion and reaction rather than rational thought. They even go so far as to say this type of decision making is unconscious and automatic; whereas System 2 is rational, controlled, conscious and effortful decision making.

Leaders in this type of research also believe that System 1 and System 2 are inseparable especially in stressful, crisis type situations. This idea complicates the notion that we can train officers to use System 2 when we know that they cannot disengage the automatic, emotional responses that will occur naturally.

Anger and Decision Making

Police officers surveyed reported that anger is a huge factor in the decision-making process and a part of daily life dealing with the public. Law enforcement admits to not only feeling anger but also trying to suppress it while on the job.

Emotions like anger not only affect what we think but also how we think. Anger is a critical piece of the puzzle when trying to understand how police professionals come to decisions in hostile situations.


Intuitive decision making is automatic and natural and in some cases very good. Officers and other law enforcement officials have been specifically trained to act without thinking to save lives. When training takes over, and your subconscious mind does the thinking for you, without any strong emotions in the way, you can act quickly and efficiently and be very successful at difficult or dangerous tasks in stressful situations. Intuitive decision-making relies heavily on feelings and hunches.

Intuitive thinking comes from repetitive action and results. However, if officers do not encounter similar situations often enough, this system of subconscious programming does not take place. Then a more muddle approach and messier thought process of decision making can potentially drive their actions.

Those officers using intuitive decision making are much more likely to take action. There is substantial evidence that using an intuitive style to make decisions while also controlling anger combines System 1 and System 2 for the most efficient decision-making ability.

Police Officers Decision Making


If however, your intuitive decision making is based on strong emotion like anger, without control, then your decision making may be grossly distorted. When affected by anger, officers are more likely to want to reach a quick decision and take action. When officers feel strong emotions like anger, they are more likely to believe broad generalizations and trust their instincts rather than think through all the angles to come to the right decision.


A rational approach to decision-making is slower and takes time to research and consider all the angles. This is not realistic in many cases for police officers who are thrown into the middle of dangerous, life-threatening situations that require quick thinking and fast action.

Rational decision making is analytical and based on considering all the facts clinically without emotion. It is theorized that using a rational thinking approach more officers will be less likely to take action such as write a ticket, pull a gun or make an arrest.

Behavioral Culture of Law Enforcement

Police Officers Behavior Culture

Due to severe isolation from the public based on the stressors in law enforcement, police officers are subject to age-old beliefs, norms and procedural expectations that propagate throughout the culture. The dominant idea is that the public is hostile and untrustworthy and police need to be on the watch every minute for violence.

Unfortunately, the bureaucratic style of management within law enforcement reinforces the ideas of “cover your ass” and “lay low” because the only time you receive attention is when you have done something wrong. Some officers even believe that hard work leads to being singled out so flying just below the radar is seen as better.

Officers tend to band tightly together in support of one another to combat these beliefs and isolation. Their mutual dependency strengthens relationships within the police force but further isolates the individual officers from their communities creating a web of secrecy which only serves to feed the mistrust the public has in law enforcement.

Veteran officers consciously and unconsciously pass along these behaviors and norms to the young cadets. New officers want to fit in, and it doesn’t take long for them to emulate older officers perpetuating the culture and environment.

This network of informal and formal rules and behaviors drastically shape the basis of how a police officer will do their job, act when off duty and help formulate their decision-making style.

The pervasiveness of this culture ultimately drives how police precincts relate to their towns and each other. It may also drive how dangerously they see the world and how they react to it when in crisis situations.