Complacency in Action

By Spencer Turley  |   Jan 31, 2020

I’ve attended many training classes in which the instructor warned against complacency and its associated dangers and I’ve heard various definitions of the word: A feeling of security while being unaware of potential dangers, or the state of being content, or failing to pay attention.

I’ve heard suggestions about how to avoid complacency, like breaking up a routine, playing the “what if” game and volunteering for a new, unfamiliar assignment. However, I haven’t heard much about what complacency actually looks or feels like. Understanding complacency when we see it or feel it can help us recognize and avoid it altogether.

What Complacency Looks Like

A few years ago, I was on a fugitive apprehension team attempting to serve an arrest warrant. We received a tip that a fugitive wanted for aggravated offenses was hiding at his girlfriend’s house. We initially met at a staging point for briefing, during which we outlined the potential dangers we would face in the home and with our target.

Pictures were shown and assignments were made. The team felt confident that we could safely attempt to serve the warrant. The briefing set a great tone for a successful, non-complacent warrant service. We knew the dangers we faced, we had a plan, and we had trained for moments exactly like this one.

We were ready.

We knocked on the door. The girlfriend answered and said she “thought” our target was there, so we asked her to step out of the house. We made callouts, but there was no response, so we entered the home to begin our search.

It was a split-entry home. I went downstairs with half of the team while the other half went upstairs. We found nothing in the basement. Shortly after we concluded our search, the team upstairs announced over the radio that the target was not up there either.

As the girlfriend was being interviewed, a few of us re-entered the home to conduct a second search. This time, I went upstairs into the master bedroom. As I slowly moved around the corner of the closet, I could see our target’s tattooed arm poking out through some clothes. I was hoping I’d seen him before he saw me! I immediately gave verbal commands, and he gradually complied. Another team member took him down from behind—a safe and successful arrest.

While we were preparing to leave the residence, a senior member of our team approached me and asked where I had located the fugitive. I explained what had happened and he began to lose the color in his face. He said, “That’s my fault. I searched that room and I missed him.” Being thoroughly impressed at the ownership the officer took in this situation, I attempted to explain that it could happen to the best of us. The officer interrupted me and said, “I’ve searched so many houses. I wasn’t expecting to find anyone, so I looked right past him. He was there the whole time. At one point, my back was to him. What if he attacked me because I failed to do my job?”

We all learned a profound lesson about complacency that night through a dangerous display of seeing it in action. The officer admirably recognized that and wasn’t afraid to own his mistake.

“I wasn’t expecting to find anyone.” This statement is a humbling reality of what complacency can look like in a real-world scenario. In this case, it was a mindset more than it was an action. It was a feeling of just going through the motions—of doing something that’s been done many times without issue. On the outside, the officer was going through the motions with the rest of us, but complacency settled on the inside. His mindset just wasn’t where it should have been. Had he expected to find someone, he would have been looking instead of just seeing.

As we go about our jobs, our mindset—the things going on inside of us that others can’t see—is just as important as the things going on outside of us. We have to do more than just go through the motions. To avoid complacency, we have to take a cognitive approach and think about why we are doing what we are doing. Then, we have to do it with meaning and purpose.

Learn from the past. Always be aware of complacency, the way it looks, and the way it feels. Then, do everything you can to avoid it. If it creeps in, recognize it and stop it!

Proactively countering complacency.

The first place you can put a halt to complacency is in training. Complacency in training can be easily identified in officers who do not take training seriously. The mindset is “it’s just another day at the range,” or “it’s just the same defensive tactics class as last time,” or “it’s only report writing.”

It’s especially destructive to go through the motions with little thought about what we are actually doing or why we are doing it when it comes to training. This mindset causes us to take virtually nothing away from training, which will eventually translate to our field performance.

It reveals itself in the form of officers who are glued to their phones throughout the training session or in those who are talking to their buddies the entire time, or in the class clown who can’t do anything but make jokes and give the instructor a hard time.

Our mindset in training follows us to the street. Take it seriously!

Tips for Leadership

Finally, one of the most consequential places complacency can be found is in leadership. If leaders are complacent, they should expect the majority of their officers will be complacent as well. As stated so eloquently in the movie Remember the Titans, “attitude reflects leadership.”

Complacency in leadership can be seen in leaders who are fine with the status quo. It’s easier to not look for ways to improve something because at the end of the day you’re just going to create more work for yourself. Improvement can be hard, so we just let things slide.

Complacency in leadership also becomes dangerous when we allow our past experiences to deny us the opportunity to make better decisions in the future. It’s true that we must learn from and draw upon our past experiences and knowledge. However, if we try to do the same thing each and every time because “it worked last time,” we’re setting ourselves up for failure.

Leaders who fail to consider the human factors that may affect their choices show complacency in decision making. They fail to ask questions which may allow them to make an educated decision. They fail to realize that there may be another, potentially better or safer way to solve the problem, only because they’ve dealt with this problem before and the last solution worked out well enough.

To identify complacency in leadership within your own approach, ask yourself:

1. Have I dealt with this before? If so, what did I learn?

2. What am I missing?

3. What should I be doing that I’m not?

4. What can I do to better meet the needs of those who work for me?

5. Are there things I know I should improve but fail to address because it will take more work to do so?