The OODA Loop: A Key to Component Response




A key component to officer safety is responding with effective force in time to make a difference. In instances where officers have been injured or killed, their training failed to support their conscious efforts to safely resolve problems. While skills and attributes vary, almost every officer knows how to respond to assault. The response, whether empty-hand, oc, taser or firearm, is relatively simple if the officer has a complete understanding of the situation. The breakdown occurs when the officer fails to recognize the significance of what he is seeing. At times, he becomes preoccupied, attempting to place his observations into a meaningful context, instead of taking  action. Simply put, he is trying to make sense out of it all. Unfortunately, law enforcement officers rarely ever get the entire picture before being required to act. And, failing to act in time results in officer injuries and deaths.

Realistically, the vast majority of assaults on officers occur with some forewarning. In fact, studies show that the average murdered officer had several, (sometimes numerous) threat indicators cumulatively weighing against him, until his survival became impossible. It is the awareness of the context of threat indicators that is key to officer safety. If we understand how humans make decisions while under stress, and what part of that process is critical to survival, we can better train officers to effectively respond. Crisis decision-making can best be explained through the OODA Loop theory.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, “90% of the fight is half mental.” The physical skills employed during a conflict accounts for only a small part of the outcome. You may be the biggest, baddest guy in the valley, but if you can’t comprehend that the other guy is reaching for a handgun, you have a good chance of being a dead tough guy. Instead, it’s the ability to mentally operate faster than your opponent that permits you to win. OODA is the mental process we all use during crisis. The OODA Loop is a series of phases: observation, orientation, and decision, resulting in action. This concept was originated by military strategist, Col John Boyd of the US Air Force.  Understanding how this loop works, while incorporating it into training is vital to recognizing threats and effectively acting in time.

This stage is primarily a result of your senses (sight, hearing, touch). You see movement, you hear your partner yell, and/or you feel the suspect’s movement.  Before you can respond, you must first observe a threat. A WWI fighter pilot said, “First look, first shot, first kill.” The observation phase is the collection of information that has not yet been assigned meaning.

Orientation is where you put the gathered information into context. What do the things I’m seeing, hearing and/or feeling mean? Raw data is useless. All information must be assigned value before it can be meaningfully used to create action. Humans orient to what is observed through pattern recognition. We take raw information, discern the available patterns and place the info into context. The faster the pattern is identified and matched with past information, training and relevant experience, the faster we orient to the situation. Therefore, the more familiar an officer is with what is observed, the more closely the pattern fits and the faster that information becomes useable data. This aspect is the reason that reality-based training is so very important to officer survival.

A problem arises when the information observed is unfamiliar and doesn’t fit previous recognition patterns. Sometimes the orientation is forced, and a decision is simply a best guess. More often, the officer gets stuck trying to figure out what the observed information actually means. Because any police action involving force carries with it administrative, criminal and civil consequences, (as well as the officer’s personal well-being) there is tremendous motivation to make a good decision. It sometimes becomes more important not to be wrong than to act in self-defense. This is where inaction paralysis occurs. The inability to act is a self-defeating loop. The attempt to orient to the information stalls action under the accumulating pressure of each passing moment.

This phase is where the contextual information is employed to make a decision. The information possessed at the time is processed and the first available reasonable solution is committed to. This is where the officer’s training and experience play a huge part in the outcome of decision-making. The more familiar the individual is with the patterns he believes are presented (orientation), the more quickly a decision is made. Rather than the best choice (implying a process where options are compared), decision-making during dynamic crisis always reverts to a sufficient choice. Here, the resulting action will satisfy the needs of the situation.

The decision is acted upon, resulting in a physical response. Optimally, the action will be a skill that is so ingrained through training and rehearsal as to involve no thought. It should be seamlessly employed. (Thus the importance of practice). Or, it may take a concentrated effort to act in the desired manner.

After action, the loop beings again, with feedback derived from the results of the action. If the action was completely successful, the officer will observe and orient to that fact. If partially successful, the decision-making, based on reorienting to the new information, will modify further actions to gain a successful outcome. If the initial action failed, the officer will be forced to go to the next choice in decision-making and pattern recognition. Again, these choices are based on past performance, relevant experience and training. This leads to more action, an observation of the results, orientation to the new information, permitting better decision-making for the next action.

It’s All About Time
There are hundreds, even thousands of OODA loops spinning during a 20-second fight. Each series of loops forms a snapshot of the situation the officer actually saw, thought he saw and decided what to do, based on his belief about the situation at the time he put what he saw into context. All action is based upon your belief of what happened when you observed the information, and not on what is actually happening now. Every decision and every action you make is based on a belief of what you saw tenths of seconds (or longer) prior to taking action. Thus, with every decision you make, you are literally 0.2 seconds (and likely more) behind.

The entire concept of the OODA Loop is a method of aptly describing time in a conflict. Whichever person (Tom or Jerry) more efficiently manages time, while moving through the OODA loop, the more likely that person will initiate meaningful actions, positively influencing the outcome. Efficiently orienting and quickly making a satisfying decision to act, given the context of the situation gives Tom the ability to move more effectively than Jerry. Rapidly processing through the orientation phase permits better and quicker decision phases. The result is effective physical actions that Jerry cannot keep up with. This permits Tom to get inside Jerry’s OODA loop
To get inside his loop means that Tom is now controlling the momentum and direction of the conflict. This control results in Jerry making increasingly irrelevant decisions concerning current reality. Jerry is now completely reactive to Tom’s actions. Because Tom is now driving the event, he is able to move faster and faster through the OODA Loop. The cumulative effects of injuries, pain, alcohol, drugs and fatigue further retard Jerry’s effective decision-making. Jerry’s decisions are slowing and are rapidly growing irrelevant to his current reality. Tom soon overwhelms Jerry, whose decision-making and resulting actions have finally ceased.

Jerry is no longer in the fight; he’s simply there until Tom decides the fight is over.

Orientation, the Key to Proper and Safe Conduct
There is no more important component to crisis decision-making than the orientation phase. Failing to orient to the information means a late, or worse, no reaction to a developing threat. A subject guarding his right side, a bulge in the waistband, failure to comply with orders to stop moving and show his hands, the subject’s face changing to a mask of concentration, stopping in mid-sentence and a quick move toward the waistband with his right hand likely means a gunfight is already underway. Orienting early to the subject guarding his right side and failure to show his hands will likely result in the officer drawing his handgun, with all of the consequences made clear if compliance is not gained. An early orientation means the officer can draw his handgun and be in a shooting (hitting the subject before he is able to complete his own draw). Moving to his own handgun at the same time as the suspect is reaching for his, will result in a gunfight (an exchange of bullets). Not reacting until the threat is confirmed (orienting to the verified fact that the suspect has a gun) and it is indeed loaded (because he is shooting) will likely result in the officer’s injury and death.

If we understand why an officer waits for confirmation, we can better teach him to respond to a threat within the confines of the OODA theory, especially the orientation phase of reacting to threat indicators. Clearly, this is the key to teaching better tactical and force decisions earlier. Better force decisions allow for a safer officer—with decreased civil, criminal and administrative liability.

Waiting for Confirmation
Most officers operate as a crime investigator on a daily basis. Regardless of patrol rank or internal departmental designation, they all take calls. They may occasionally scuffle with a suspect, but rarely do they experience a serious fight. Most will never fire their handgun at a live threat. Routine suspicion of suspect activities, and behavior interpreted as non-threatening criminal actions becomes second nature. When hands disappear, this routine suspicion almost always signals criminal avoidance behavior, rather than a threat. In fact, during a career, officers will encounter relatively few people who will actually try to harm them beyond what is necessary to escape—until, of course, they do.

Because most officers see themselves as crimefighters, their own experience teaches them that talking to subjects who are exhibiting criminal behavior will get them consent searches and information about criminal activity. This can lead to more arrests and seizures, a measure of success in the police world. Negotiating is how most officers do their business, and they are successful. They build a career of solid arrests as productive and competent officers. This aspect of the job is all about investigating, figuring things out, understanding why and making sense of complicated situations.

Another part of the cop’s world is that the clock is always ticking. Officers know they are responding to a problem that took 10 years to develop and spin out of control (the reason the police were called in the first place), yet there is limited time to discern the problem and solve it. In the back of every officer’s mind is the knowledge that there will be another call after this one. There is an ever-present pressure to wrap things up. However, this time the officer is dealing with a prepared offender, someone willing and capable of killing him. Having developed probable cause, the officer tells the offender he is under arrest, and directs him to move into a handcuffing position. As the officer is cuffing him, the offender pulls a hand free and reaches for his waistband. If, at this point, the question arises in the mind of the officer, “Why is he moving?” a struggle to orient to the information begins.

What is this officer’s dilemma? Everything in his job requires an explanation. He does not want to lose his job by overreacting. He simply wants to justify what he does. Like every other call, he is desperately trying to address the “what’s” of the offender’s behavior. Orientation stalls as more and better information is frantically sought, but the threat to the officer grows as the tenths and hundredths of seconds click by. The officer’s frustration grows. He knows time is against him, and this knowledge further inhibits orientation. Something is happening, but he cannot get enough hard information to fully understand the situation. This orientation stall puts the officer behind the suspect’s action (and decision-making), permitting the suspect to drive the conflict. The result: this officer is about to be hurt.

Teaching OODA Cycling
Effective OODA cycling requires rapid orientation to observed information and an ability to obtain relevant decisions needed for effective action. Training must support this need. For years, the concept of pre-assault indicators has been presented to alert officers to possible impending safety threats. While valuable to officer safety, it does not assist in quickly orienting to a rapidly-evolving threat. Nor does it lead to the effective decision-making required to survive the next few tenths of a second. A pre-assault indicator is defined as recognition of motor, attitude, physical and speech patterns signaling probable assault. Before responding, analysis of pre-assault indicators generates a decision-making process involving the legality of the officer’s action. By its very definition, the decision process is now delayed because enough information must be gathered to satisfy the officer’s legal and policy imperatives—every action must later be justified. While training in recognizing pre-assault indicators is a vital component of safety, it can actually feed into the officer’s need to make sense of an offender’s actions.

The missing distinction in safety training between “wait to figure it out” and “act now!” is the tripwire response. This is a response to a threat cue requiring no decision-making based on context. Decision-making is simplified to the point that upon orienting to it, the decision to take action has already been made. The response to this decision is ingrained through training and the offender’s actions simply trips the wire, initiating the response. For example, a tug on the officer’s holstered handgun is a tripwire for the officer’s dominant hand to strike down on the butt of his handgun and press it and the suspect’s hand into his body–no decision-making  required. Given orientation to the tripwire cue, action becomes automatic. In our earlier example, the offender’s hand pulls free and disappears during handcuffing. The following criteria are set up in training to create a reasonable tripwire response:

  • A subject who is under arrest has no other legal option than to comply with police commands. There is no discretion to do otherwise.
  • Any movement to areas commonly associated with the carry of deadly weapons is threatening to the officer’s safety. Therefore, he may react to the possibility of his reasonable belief, with reasonable force sufficient to overcome the threat (created by the suspect’s movement.) A tripwire response to the arrestee reaching to his waistband during handcuffing may be to shove the suspect away and draw the duty weapon, making shoot/no shoot decisions (based on threat-cues, and initiating an entirely new series of OODA Loops). Or it might be a quick hard takedown, pinning the subject’s hand under his body until it can be safely controlled, or a deadly force response made (threat indicators). All of these responses are reasonable, given this circumstance.

Because an officer rarely experiences a life-threatening attack, and is thousands of times more likely to be confronted by criminal behavior, the habit of routine suspicion is reinforced. When confronted by threatening behavior, it may take the officer longer than the suspect’s actions permit to orient to the fact that the situation is not a simple dope case, but instead, a life-threatening assault. OODA is a simple method of explaining how we make decisions under threat. Observing, orienting, deciding and then acting, with continuous feedback modifying each successive loop. That’s how we, as humans with training and experience in crisis decision-making, do our jobs. Training to create effective OODA loop cycling of pre-assault indicators and tripwire responses should concentrate on the orientation phase of decision-making. Training officers to see and recognize commonly experienced criminal behaviors as threat behaviors will permit a better, more rapid decision-making process, increasing the officer’s safety and quality of articulation following the response.
Lifesaving action is often a result of the officer quickly and correctly orienting to the partial information presented to him. Training must support that. The best training concentrates on developing a knowledge base that permits the rapid identification of impending violence. It gives officers permission to act reasonably, without the cumbersome process of deciding about the lawfulness of their responses in situations where those decisions should already be decided based upon the suspect’s actions. OODA is valuable to training and understanding why officers are either successful in their conflict resolution or are injured or murdered. Of the four phases, orientation is the key to keeping officers safe on the street. The better we  apply OODA concepts to training, the better we prepare our officers to meet the threats they face.

About the Author
Tom Benge is a patrol sargeant at the City of Meadville, Penn. PD. He is a National Lead Trainer for Cutting Edge Training and may be reached at:
George T. Williams is Director of Training for Cutting Edge Training in Bellingham, Wash. He may be reached

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