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Manage Those Risks!

Gordon Graham, author and consultant, was the featured speaker at the California Police Officers Association COPSWest event, held in Ontario, CA. Graham has a law and law enforcement background and has turned his expertise to the important field of risk management. “I think risk management is the answer to everything,” he vouched, giving the example of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department that “reduced liability exposure by two-thirds, by seriously taking on risk management aggressively.”

Risk management is more than safety, insurance, code enforcement or prevention of criminal behavior. It is a discipline about what can go wrong and what can be done to prevent that something from going wrong. Whether the time involved is five seconds or five decades, the principle is the same, namely, to evaluate risks and the factors that change, reduce, or eliminate the negative consequences of actions.

Organizations that take this seriously reduce their problems. Yet many don’t think up front. Most accidents occur from human mistakes, and most of those mistakes stem from alcohol, drug or fatigue factors. Exemplary risk managers such as the DuPont, UPS, and Southwest Airlines have aggressive procedures to beat alcohol, drug and fatigue issues. “When are we going to wake up?” he asks.

Planners need to recognize risk, prioritize risk and decide how to act. You mobilize by the standardization of best practices. But even though best practices might be easily discovered, they are sometimes overlooked, or they are delayed in getting into reality. For an example of this, many cities’ police, fire and emergency services are still at only the discussion stage of such things as shared radio frequencies and standardized fire hydrant connections in light of problems in those two matters at the time of 9/11. Even though the risk of multiple radio frequencies or variable hydrant connections are known, Graham lamented, “They’re still just talking about it four years after 9/11!”

Bad things do not have to happen, and they can be avoided by risk management procedures. The government doesn’t take risk management seriously because litigation has affected how government responds to safety issues. All that lawyers recognize is post-event correction. Risk management instead anticipates the problem and takes steps to change, correct or eliminate it.

He said the primary cause of police deaths last year was traffic accidents, many of which could have been prevented by simple risk management measures such as wearing a seat belt. A good example of driving safety is that of UPS. Its drivers learn procedures for entering and exiting their vehicles, wearing a seat belt, and even how to hold their keys—risk management strategies that cut UPS driver injury and enhance safety of UPS drivers and the public.

Graham cited another example of a simple, yet effective law enforcement risk management measure—right-side approach when doing a vehicle stop. Such a policy could result in a significant decline in officer deaths or injuries and could greatly enhance officer safety.

Two kinds of risk management exist—organizational (such issues as getting and keeping good personnel, having an effective field policy manual, training, supervision, and discipline) and operational (looking at specific tasks and events, and managing the risks associated with them). With either kind, though, Graham said, “Risk management is looking for things that can go wrong and doing something about it up front.”

Risk managers need to understand systems or practices and how they can be designed, updated or implemented to achieve successful risk management. Many sources of exemplary systems exist, but the root of tragedy traces to the point when a better system is not implemented.

Yet another element of risk management is respecting and treating people right. Graham called it customer service and said, “It is in everything we do.” It, too, has a place in successful risk management. And risk managers must understand and enforce accountability. All personnel must understand their roles in the management system. Graham said, “Make sure people do what they are paid to do.”

With risk management functioning as a foundation for the rest of the career, Graham said it consists of thinking there is always a better way to stay out of trouble. Smarter organizations and smart people in those organizations are constantly in pursuit of a better way.

Because “predictable is preventable,” risk management involves studying situations, seeing what mistakes or future mistakes happened or might happen, and knowing the history of events and their consequences. Better protect your organization, better protect your budget, and better protect your profession. Do a standardization of best practices. Know why things go right and why things go wrong. Trouble traces either to intentional conduct or negligent conduct.

If it’s intentional and external (someone bent on evil) it might be difficult to prevent, but some measures can be put into place to lessen the effects of it. For example, terrorism is an external, intentional misconduct, but there can be measures in place to thwart it. Tests that occur with random irregularity can be built into a system to check on measures that deter or prevent certain acts. Random patrols, random ways to do something, taking random routes, etc. all make something unpredictable, thus there can be no casing to determine patterns of when people leave and come, what’s done and when.

For rooting out negative conduct that is intentional and internal, risk management would look particularly at hiring and retention policies. People don’t want to work with losers. Law enforcement is not an evil cauldron that hires good people and turns them into bad people. The mantra should be “predictable is preventable.” With negligent acts, risk managers must build a system where, even if there is a mistake, people won’t get hurt. Learn where mistakes can occur, and take steps to eliminate those situations or the factors that cause mistake.

Occasionally, mistakes occur because of complacency. In the high-risk world of law enforcement, complacency is the kiss of death! Fatigue, whether long- or short-term, impacts thinking, performance, and critical thinking skills. Fatigue is a big deal and a prime cause of mistakes and accidents. It should be a big topic. Mistakes are most likely to happen with high-risk/low-frequency events.

Graham recommended looking at the tasks of each job description and categorizing its risks and the frequencies of those risks. That is the essence of risk assessment—addressing the risks being faced. Some of the assessment is guesswork, of course, but there are also actuarial facts that can be obtained from the city attorney, workers’ compensation representative, human resources department, etc. to determine the tasks that get people into trouble. Know where those mistakes come from.

Next, prioritize the risks by whether there is discretionary time to think about the act before acting, or non-discretionary time. In every job, some acts are done rarely but under risk, with no time to think about what must be done. In police work, that might be pursuits, shoot/don’t shoot situations, workplace violence, bomb threats, CPR, building evacuations during a fire, jail fires, etc.

There’s no time to look it up, so training must be such that there is mobilization, anticipation, prioritization, and a set of procedures in place to guide what can be done, even where time is nondiscretionary. Review what is to be done during every work day’s training sessions. Make every day a training day, and change the topics each day so that there is continuous opportunity to learn what to do in such areas as methods of arrest, service of warrants, first aid/CPR, harassment, ethics, and domestic violence.

Don’t spend time on the low-frequency/low-risk events, but instead focus on high-risk/low-frequency, and nondiscretionary time events. Some things need to be done immediately and require constant daily training in order for that the person’s response to be appropriate and automatic in the incident. If you have the time to think, start using it.

Training must also focus on the fact that there has been a deterioration of dignity and respect across American for the past 40 years. He said, “We’ve lost the basics. Somebody needs to bring them back.” Teach your people to treat people how you’d like to be treated. There’s nothing wrong with smiling. Listen as much as you talk. Never make a promise you can’t keep. Keep the ones you make. Apologize when you do something wrong. Apologize and try to fix it now.

He continued, “By and large, the average men and women we’ve got working for us are good people,” but when something goes wrong, it could be the result of an intentional act (screen your hires and retentions), or negligence. Rely on training to teach people how to act and what to do. Be job-description specific. See that people understand each task in their jobs. Identify policy, teach the policy, and do an ongoing verification of their knowledge. Study mistakes, document even the minor mishaps, and learn from them. Document close calls because they provide many clues to risk management. Close calls don’t often get reported because of embarrassment or fear of discipline.

For risk management in evidence issues, Graham recommended doing an audit of the evidence room. If you’re not certain of evidence and property room practices, audit. He recommended using a bar-code system and doing proper storage.

On use-of-force risk management issues, both policy and training are essential. Do away with range days during which people are sent to a range four times a year for firearms training and once a year for baton training. Instead, have use-of-force training days covering all types of force, with skills and policy instruction of when to use, not just how to use force.

Report writing in use-of-force incidents is important because cases can be lost on poor reports. Reports must be factual incident documentation. Because reports use discretionary time, the report can be written with care to lock in events for a case—or for the rest of someone’s career. So training in report writing becomes a part of the overall risk management strategy, too.

Graham concluded that a goal should be not only to have personnel that are highly capable, but to raise the standard of quality over time. Study issues before they become problems. Training, audits and inspections are essential. Risk management is a critical part of law enforcement. Take it seriously.

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., is a lawyer who writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2006

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