By Jean Reynolds

Police training programs put a great deal of emphasis on the physical side of law enforcement such as physical fitness, firing a weapon, and restraining a suspect. TV shows often depict police officers engaged in foot chases and hand-to-hand combat with dangerous offenders. By contrast, the thinking side of police work is far less dramatic and tends to receive much less attention from the media. As a police officer you need to remember that the ability to think through a complex situation may be the factor that determines whether a particular police action is a success or a failure.

Consider a traffic stop, for example. Perhaps the motorist was driving over the speed limit, wasn’t wearing her seat belt, and had a child next to her who wasn’t properly restrained. Experienced officers say that rather than citing all three violations, you should focus on the most important one. This requires running through a mental sorting process to determine which behavior presented the greatest risk.

Very likely you’ll decide to skip over the seat belt and focus on choosing either the unrestrained child and speeding. Many officers would be most concerned about the child, but in some situations (driving too fast near a playground, for example), a speeding ticket might be the better choice.
Even the decision to issue a citation might benefit from an objective thinking process. Traffic stops are the only interaction that many people have with law enforcement. If there’s a minor offense (a broken tail light) and the motorist has a good driving record, consider whether a warning would suffice—and perhaps generate some good will from a person who’s usually wary of police.

Your police training will probably have a great deal to say about Fourth Amendment issues concerning searches and seizures. Decisions about pat downs and vehicle searches aren’t nearly as exciting as vehicle chases, and they don’t get much attention in TV shows and movies. But the ability to decide—quickly—whether a situation falls into the category of “reasonable suspicion” or “probable cause” can make a difference in whether an offender goes to jail or goes free.

“Reasonable suspicion” means someone might have committed a crime, and it gives you limited rights to detain a person. If you see someone leaning against a building near a parking lot known for drug transactions, you would have reasonable suspicion to ask a few questions and check his pockets for a weapon.

But if you perform a thorough search for drugs and find a plastic bag containing white powder, you may face a court challenge. In this case a thorough search for drugs requires probable cause, and the standard is higher: you have to show that person “most likely” committed a crime rather than “might have,” as in “reasonable suspicion.”

DUI stops are another example of the difference between “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause.” If you see two young people in a car at 2 AM on January 1, it’s reasonable to think that they might have had too much to drink at a New Year’s Eve party. Many jurisdictions will permit you to stop the car and talk to the driver. But if you administer field sobriety tests or a breathalyzer test, a judge might rule the results inadmissible unless you can show the driver “most likely” had been drinking (probable cause). Your report should show signs of impaired driving, such as swerving from side to side or nearly hitting another car.

It’s easy to fall into the mistake of thinking that police work is all about instant reactions and fast responses. While that’s often true, effective police officers also need acute thinking skills and the ability to make a decision based on agency procedures and local ordinances. You should make a commitment to take advantage of every opportunity to develop both the physical and mental skills needed for effective police work.