Risk Management Challenges
in Law Enforcement
Chief, San Diego Harbor Police
Discussed in this paper are concerns involving:
• Internal Investigations,
• Citizen Complaints,
• Cultural Fads and Trends,
• Methods of Communication / Organizational Health,
• Leadership, Audits, and Accountability, and
• Safety and Security Policy
Meeting the challenge of effective risk management for law enforcement requires proactive observation and analysis of circumstances, policies, behaviors and other indicators of potential problems or issues. Failure to address these issues could result in harm to fellow employees or the public, loss of valuable staff time, damage to property, and could significantly increase the cost of insurance premiums due to a poor history of managing risk.
Many organizations have early warning systems; however, those systems are generally used in instances during which officers may be treating the public in ways that are unprofessional and/or not by policy. Most managers are aware of the need to be alert for increased numbers of citizen complaints, excessive sick use, an increase in the number of grievances, an increase in the number of accidents involving equipment and other similar traditional “red flag” activities. Quickly addressing these trends as they begin to emerge have been generally successful; however, these same trends often are fully developed before being recognized and addressed.
A greater challenge is organizational awareness of the more subtle signals that merely suggest an issue is looming on the horizon. As a matter of fact, other activities need to be engaged that help assure that even subtle signals do not arise, a somewhat daunting but not impossible responsibility.
Cultural Fads and Trends
We are all impacted by fads and trends in both our personal and professional lives. There is a great difference between a fad and a trend. Fads tend to be rather short in duration, lasting generally from a matter of weeks to a few months. Seldom do they last from year to year. The clothing industry is an excellent example of fads; clothing design, color, etc., vary according to the season or what the most popular rock star may be wearing. Trends, on the other hand, generally form patterns over a period of time. A good example of this would be the increase in the use of cellular phones. This trend has been developing over a period of time. In fact, the use of cell phones has created another set of patterns or trends that include such things as driving while talking on the phone; this has created even another trend that suggests the possibility of numerous automobile accidents are attributed to the use of cell phones while driving.
Many organizations that have staff driving vehicles as a course of their duties, also have had to develop policies that restrict or prohibit the use of cell phones while operating a vehicle. How many organizations developed such policies only after there was an incident? Employees, being a microcosm of society at large, are affected by the world at large and at some point bring into the workplace what is current in the rest of the world. This could be cell phones, palm pilots, hairstyles, or even slang language.
Why are fads and trends important relative to risk management? It develops new sets of issues for management to be aware of and to address. The only way this can be addressed is by consciously assessing new developments and asking for the implications from management. Based on the answers, new policies, procedures, or conversations need to be conducted. Too often, management is reacting to these issues only after a problem has developed.
Methods of Communication/Organizational Health
One might ask what methods of communicating might have to do with risk management? It is really quite simple: The more open and communicative organizational members are with one another; the more likely management is apt to discover or learn of risk management issues. Personal injuries or damage to property due to employee fatigue, poor morale, a lack of training, a lack of adequate supervision and leadership, or the need for clear policies and consistent practices will ultimately be discovered by management or revealed to management through open and candid dialogue.
Risk management programs must be communicated to all organizational members on a frequent basis. Fliers, announcements, and dialogue at formal and informal meetings are just several methods by which the value and importance of risk management is highlighted. A closed, hierarchical organization often results in filtered information, less than candid conversations, and a negative impact on timely information. The symptom of this type of organization (often called an unhealthy organization) is damage to property and injuries to employees. Healthy organizations tend to have higher levels of morale and fewer instances of damage and injury.
Discipline management is a form of communication necessary for healthy organizations. Discipline suggests how seriously administration values its rules, mission, and method for interfacing with the community. How effective these guidelines are communicated affects morale, interest in serving the department, and ultimately the attitude for continuing to serve the community. Discipline must begin with a clear set of expectations from the executive team and must follow the policies and procedures that clarify processes for judging incidents, appeals, and fairness in applications. Flaws in any of these areas will generate risk management problems at potential costs.
Internal investigations are instances where officers' behavior must meet standards; they are investigated and sometimes interrogated as to their behavior and truthfulness. Often these necessary processes create animosity from citizens, administration, officers, and unions. Citizen review panels may be created or police chiefs may face criticism or applause at their actions.
How people conduct their business is heavily influenced by those with whom they work. Peer pressure has been the subject of many studies and it is well understood that in all organizations there are formal leaders and there are those who are informal leaders. If corners are going to be cut, if standards are going to be compromised, or if someone conducts their work in an unsafe and unprofessional manner, the peer group has to be willing to accept that behavior. In cases where informal leaders behave in a manner consistent with organizational philosophy, the less the likelihood that co-workers will drift out of bounds. Ideally, the informal leaders are a positive influence and operate in a manner congruent with organizational philosophy.
As issues are being addressed, as organizational sensing is being conducted, as management by wandering around takes place, the informal leaders should always be contacted and asked their opinions and recommendations. Risk management ideally is not a concern solely of management; it should be the concern of all members of the organization. One of the better ways of including all (inclusion) is to seek out and value their opinions.
Proactive audits of adherence to processes, procedures, policies and other activities are crucial. The mere fact that employees are allowed to take short cuts or develop their own set of rules normalizes that behavior. If officers, for example, are to check out and secure all of their equipment, and are not held accountable for that responsibility, eventually their failure to perform will become an accepted (or normalized) practice. If the policy is not being followed, there are three basic reasons:
a) It may be a bad policy,
b) Appropriate training may not have been conducted, or
c) Staff is not being held accountable.
Either way, some action must be taken. Driving practices (not necessarily during pursuits), officer safety practices, impound procedures, storage of narcotics evidence, handling of money of all sorts… all are just a few of the examples in which proactive audits should be conducted. Who is in control of safety equipment and how often is that equipment inspected? If officers spend a great deal of time on their feet, what type of foot support are they wearing? When was the last time officers were required to refresh their driving skills? Are officers practicing proper lifting techniques? These are many of the questions we need to ask that challenge the assumptions that veteran officers are all performing their duties in a safe and healthy manner. When was the last time you checked facilities for operational fire extinguishers, first aid kits, secure storage cabinets, and secure facilities for rolling stock? Who has the responsibility of checking for seat belt use, flares in the trunk, etc.?
What about civilian staff and their safety practices? That, of course, includes repetitive motion syndrome (carpal tunnel), some of which can be prevented with equipment that augments keyboards and computer screens. Staff who answer phones and dispatch calls should be provided the most up-to-date equipment. There are still instances in which phones are being cradled between the ear and the shoulder while notes are being taken.
Safety and Security Policy
In light of the recent world activities, many organizations are reassessing the security of their facilities and implementing policies that require greater screening of visitors to all facilities. There are numerous systems that can be installed that scan identification cards, much like a credit card, read finger or palm prints, or recognize facial characteristics. Some organizations have reviewed and rewritten their safety and security policies that also describe stages of alert. Regardless, many employees are much more aware of the need for security procedures, and expect their organization to have well written and highly publicized policies and procedures.
It is important that all members of the organization are held accountable for following proper procedures and using common sense as it relates to risk management issues. However, if it is not in some way connected to their performance and performance ratings, there will be a limited commitment. There is a saying, “What gets rewarded or evaluated, gets done.” So true. If there is an expectation that all staff is to be aware of risk management issues and of their role in those issues, most likely to be successful, this should then become part of an evaluating system. Good behavior can be rewarded while other behaviors can be corrected.
Measuring and Celebrating Success
Injuries, accidents, claims, and many other determinants of appropriate risk management should all be recorded and assessed continually. This on-going assessment allows for proactive measures or celebration of success. Certificates of appreciation, notes in file, and other gestures support positive behavior and help to build organizational pride. There are times when it can also build healthy competition. All incentive or reward programs have the possibility of taking on a life of their own, all the more reason to have the programs designed with the assistance of representatives from all level within the organization.
Risk management is both a leadership and management issue. Leadership is conducted through the role modeling of proper behaviors of all members of the organization. Management is conducted through the ongoing assessment, observations, evaluation and analysis of many unique and mundane tasks, and tasks that are done seldom and frequently. Risk management is both a moral (it is just the right thing to do to keep people from harming themselves or others) and a business (insurance premiums are skyrocketing, seriously impacting budgets) obligation. It is well to fix risk management responsibility with a person or a small group and it is also well to ask contemporaries what measure they take in an effort to assess best practices.
Risk management issues will always be before us, but by making risk management a part of the organizational culture, a positive impact can be made on time lost, damage to property, levels of service to the public, and overall organizational morale.
Dave Hall is currently the Chief of Police, San Diego Harbor Police Department, San Diego, Calif. E-mail:
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