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Use the ‘What If’ game to reduce complacency

Complacency results when you make assumptions that are corrosive to the safety and security of your institution


It is critical to always consider multiple outcomes for various scenarios so you can mentally prepare your response.


By Russ Hamilton

What is complacency and what does it have to do with safety and security within corrections?

Complacency is defined as situational awareness perceived but not achieved. Complacency results when you make assumptions that are corrosive to the safety and security of your institution. You may believe you have a clear picture of the situation in front of you, but when not backed up with investigation, you put your fellow staff, your institution and the public at risk.

The complacency of routine

Probably the most insidious form is the complacency of routine. Routine builds familiarity and familiarity breeds contempt. Contempt dulls your rational faculty and you begin to operate based on expected outcomes.

While you cannot plan for every possibility, you can be ready for probabilities. When you are ready to take action to stop or prevent any probable incident, your complacency and the number of assumptions you make are relatively low.

A few years back while processing vehicles in a sally port, I saw an officer prepare to leave his vehicle to use the restroom. As it was hot outside, he was going to leave the vehicle running with an inmate secured in the back seat. This was an area with armed perimeter coverage overhead. This officer’s comfort level was therefore high, as was his confidence.

The assumptions this officer made were the following: Having just returned from a one-hour drive, he was assuming the restraints were still properly applied and the inmate had not fiddled with them. He was also assuming the inmate had no inclination to lay back on the seat and kick the window out. He assumed the inmate would not then exit the car and not get in the driver’s seat. He assumed the inmate would not then use the vehicle as a battering ram to escape. The longer your chain of assumptions, the more likely a weak link will appear to be exploited.

So here we have a near-perfect storm of assumptions, overconfidence, complacency and lack of situational awareness. Now it’s true the likelihood of such a scenario occurring is very low but not so low that it could be dismissed. I never allowed the possibility to occur by thinking critically and instructing the officer as to what the worst possible outcome(s) could be.

In the video below, Gordon Graham explains why routine safety, sanitation and security inspections are crucial for your facility. Learn how these inspections help prevent major issues like escapes and injuries, save costs by addressing small problems before they escalate, and ensure the overall safety of staff, inmates and the facility. This video is an essential watch for corrections officers at any experience level, packed with expert advice on maintaining a secure environment.

The “what if” game

With the human psyche being so prone to complacency, how can we inoculate our minds against our own sense of false security?

When I began my career at San Quentin in 1989, I was introduced to the “What If” game. This game focused on the importance of considering multiple probabilities and multiple actions for various scenarios. There are three steps to this:

  1. Pre-planning: Pre-planning is something that should take place within the policies and procedures of your institution. The purpose is to reduce stress and response time by having decisions regarding incident response already known and practiced by staff. By moving the decision-making process as far down the response line as possible, you avoid making assumptions at a critical phase of an incident.
  2. Personal preparedness: This encompasses everything from mindset to equipment functionality. Did you test or inspect your equipment today? Do you have adequate backups in case of failure? Are you familiar with the adage two is one, one is none, or have you made assumptions about it? What do your policies require and what procedures should you be following? Are you assuming things will turn out because yesterday was okay?
  3. After-action review: After-action reviews can become complacency traps as they tend to look back over a terrain where all the fixes seem easy to identify and all the things that went well are assumed to be entirely adequate for the next incident. This is where the importance of dissecting the circumstances the event must also account for other possible outcomes to break down assumptions and use the review to improve the safety and security of personnel and the institution.

It is a slippery slope from readiness to chaos. Avoid being seduced by complacency by following these key steps.
About the author
Russ Hamilton is a retired sergeant for the California Department of Corrections.