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Subjective Eyes: Critical Decisions

Police officers constantly have to make judgments - sometimes critical ones - about people, their motivations, intentions and actions. The officers then act, or not - sometimes critically - based on those judgments. Much of police training addresses the tactical components of such decision-making. Less training addresses the subjective elements the officers bring to that process - elements that may be formed before the academy. The following exercise begins that important self-examination.

The exercise

First Impressions was contributed to the book 101 Games for Trainers (web link below) by Drake Beil, president of Solutions, Inc., Honolulu. It works with any size group.


First Impressions has participants personally experience the power of preconceptions, first impressions and resulting actions. It works even amongst people who know each other well.

Of all the myriad calls officers respond to, how many require them to quickly assess people, their motives, intentions and actions, and interact with them accordingly? If you responded, "All of them," you're right. That's why this exercise can be so powerful across so many training topics.

Time required

101 Games for Trainers recommends 10 minutes for the exercise. That might be sufficient if the main purpose is for people to get to know each other. Ten minutes didn't begin to provide the amount of time my groups wanted to spend on this exercise. It's great to have learners fully engaged in a training exercise and be talking about it later during breaks. First Impressions is such an exercise. I now allow 30 - 45 minutes at a minimum.

Materials required

A form for each participant, prepared in advance by the trainer. I've provided a link to the one I developed at the end of this article.

The exercise in action

I've also provided a link at the end of this article to easy directions I developed for this exercise.

After dividing your whole group into groups of three, each person is given one of the two-part forms. Each form contains five categories of personal tastes. I first chose:

  • Favorite TV show
  • Perfect vacation
  • Favorite food
  • Favorite kind of music
  • Favorite kind of book

Favorite sport to watch, Favorite sport to play, Favorite hobby or interest, Animal you would most like to be, Animal you most admire - are also possible categories.

Participants fill out one half of each form for each of the other two members of their trio, guessing at what they think the others' tastes are. They aren't allowed to ask any questions. Guessing is essential, so only two or three minutes should be allowed to complete the forms.

Once the forms are completed, participants share their answers within their trio. The trainer offers the following discussion points:

  • What were guesses based on
  • Whether any guesses were correct
  • Whether two people guessed the same thing about one other person, and
  • Whether their guesses were based on the same things.

Past exercises in action

The first time I moderated this exercise with a multi-disciplinary group of cops, prosecutors, child protective service workers, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) and forensic interviewers, a SANE asked at the beginning,

But I don't know the other two people in my group. How can I answer these questions?

I pointed out that we form opinions every day about people we don't know. The SANE replied,

Oh. That's part of the purpose of the exercise, huh?

I smiled.

When people start sharing their guesses, expect laughing, screaming, and lots of fun. Above the excited noise, I've heard shouts of,

Hannah Montana! How could you think that was my favorite movie?!
Oprah?! I hate The Oprah Show. Hush up! I don't even want to know why you thought that was my favorite program!

The whole room snapped, crackled and popped. Participants were reluctant to leave their own discussions for the larger group discussion. That's why I now allow more time for the exercise.

A husband (cop) and wife (child protective services supervisor) intentionally placed themselves in separate trios. But when they asked the questions of each other afterwards, she scored much higher than he did. They both laughed but he suggested their next vacation would likely be her perfect one.

Participants are very interested in comparisons and friendly competitions. For example, seeing who scored better amongst:

  • Different professions
  • Different generations
  • Different years of experience on the job
  • Men and women

I gave prizes to the trio that scored the highest and the lowest. Consider toy magnifying glasses or small mirrors - the better to see one's self with. (See web links below for 15¢ magnifying glasses and cheap mirrors.)

After trios have had adequate opportunity to discuss the questions listed above, invite them to share their experiences with the larger group. The trainer may also pose the following discussion points to the larger group:

  • Do you think your guesses said more about you or more about the other person? How and why?
  • Do you think other people's guesses about you said more about them or you? How and why?
  • Do you think you might interact with people differently based on the opinions you formed without knowing them?
  • How might that affect the interaction?

This is where I’ve seen impressive work by participants on the positive and negative powers of assumptions and beliefs:

  • How they can have misperceptions
  • How their assumptions can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies
  • How we can impact others' behaviors by the beliefs we express about them
  • How we are impacted by others' assumptions and beliefs about us
  • What assumptions we and others make that serve us well
  • What assumptions we and others make that are detrimental to our work

An exercise for all seasons

Policing demands that officers make critical judgments about people on the street and when responding to calls. The more informed these judgments are; the more officers understand what goes into them - the better for officers and the communities they serve.

Officers also make daily assumptions and judgments that, while important, are not necessarily critical to officer or citizen safety or the ultimate prosecution of a case. These beliefs, assumptions and judgments are about and affect other officers, subordinates, supervisors, staff, related professionals and community members.

This exercise helps officers explore their assumptions, beliefs and judgments in a challenging, fun, enter~train~ing and enlightening way. It bridges genders, generations, races and professions.

Try it. There's a lot to gain and the only things you and the officers you train have to lose are some possible misperceptions.