Policing is an inherently dangerous occupation.  Law enforcement agencies must continue to improve the safety margin, not only for LEOs, but also for the community.

In the 10-year period from 2003 – 2012 in United States, an annual average of 154 LEOs were killed in the line of duty and 15,483 were injured by assault.   (See National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund: Deaths, Assaults and Injuries).

Another aspect of law enforcement that must receive attention are the costs associated with the loss of resources and significant fiscal impacts of litigation.  Progressive leaders must continually seek strategies to eliminate or mitigate risks that threaten safety, impair resources or cause litigation.  Leaders must engage in effective risk management (RM).

Risk Management and Police Leadership

Risk management can be defined as a formalized way of dealing with hazards. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA, 2009) cites in part that “Risk management, a formalized way of dealing with hazards, is the logical process of weighing the potential costs of risks against the possible benefits of allowing those risks to stand uncontrolled” (p. xi).

Law enforcement agencies will always have to deal with risk management issues, but by making risk management a part of the agency’s organizational culture, a positive impact can be made on levels of service to the public and overall organizational morale. Risk management in policing is both a leadership and management issue.

From the perspective of organizational leadership we argue in support of previous research that police leadership is conducted “through the role modeling of proper behaviors of all members of the organization”. Police 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” (Hall, cited in Public Entity Risk Institute, 2014, para. 10).

The study and application of RM principles have been successfully applied across “inherently dangerous” industries such as aviation.  The aviation industry has been relentless and very effective in its pursuit of safety, and serves as an excellent basis (although not limited) to develop law enforcement RM practices.

Progressive law enforcement professionals should give strong consideration to adopting RM measures to make better decisions to advance safety protocols and mitigate the costs derived from loss of resources and litigation.  In order to gain a clear understanding of RM it is important to differentiate between the two elements most affiliated with it: hazard and risk. The FAA (2009) identifies hazard as “a source of danger” (p. 4), and risk as the “possibility that something bad or unpleasant (such as an injury or a loss) will happen” (p. 5).

Although RM can be implemented in most areas of law enforcement, we focus on the implementation in the area of safety since preservation of life is paramount.  RM can be successfully implemented at any level of a police agency, from the entry-level officer through the executive.

Proper adaptation requires that a police agency promote and foster a culture that encourages and expects all personnel to be fully engaged in RM.   The case for the progressive leader is that the implementation of RM may require independent study.   Furthermore, a leader must recognize that a paradigm shift may be needed to reach its full potential in transforming the “para military” culture of their law enforcement agency. Such a shift encourages individual engagement in RM.

Most law enforcement agencies already apply elements of RM in their operations to limit their personnel and the public from exposure to common risk.  For example, officers may be trained to terminate a pursuit due to inclement weather conditions, or when heavy traffic conditions or pedestrians are present.  Officers are also provided with various devices or weapons to assist them in performing their jobs safely. In these examples the agencies have made a risk versus reward assessment based on the organization’s values and the safety of the officers and public.

An organization’s development of such policies and procedures are generally aimed at specific activities and cannot encompass all risks. 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 obligation (Hall, cited inPublic Entity Risk Institute, 2014, para. 9). Hall further asserts that “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” (para. 9).

Through the application of RM, officers become more adept in performing risk assessments. This improves their ability to make more intelligent decisions concerning mitigating or eliminating various risks associated with law enforcement activities.

The FAA recognized that good pilot judgment (often referred to as Aeronautical Decision Making – ADM) was critical to the safe operation of aircraft, as well as accident avoidance.  Research in this area prompted the FAA in 1987 to produce training directed to improve the decision-making being taught as part of the pilot training curriculum.

An independent study found that pilots of varying skill levels that received ADM training in conjunction with their standard flying curriculum made 10 – 50 percent fewer errors.  These data clearly demonstrate that aviation safety was greatly enhanced through the teaching of advanced decision making or RM.

Risk Management takes into account several components that require review and analysis to adequately assess and mitigate the risk associated with engaging in a particular activity.  The components and a limited scope of their respective law enforcement related factors include:  human (e.g., mental awareness, physical and emotional fatigue, weapons proficiency, attitude, emotional intelligence, ego, training, education); environment  (e.g., urban, rural, available human and material resources, present and forecasted weather, communications); machine (e.g., vehicles, aircraft, bicycles, firearms, less-lethal devices, safety equipment, computers, electronic aids); external factors (e.g., suspect/victim/witness demeanor, agency/unit morale, politics, media, laws, policies and procedures, employee relations, law enforcement culture).

Each of the above components can be viewed as concentric circles. The point where they intersect is where RM is performed.  Through the study of the components, police personnel and leaders can dramatically improve their ability to effectively apply RM and achieve organizational goals and better serve the community. For example, in recognizing a human factor a police agency may prohibit an officer from engaging in certain high-risk activities after the officer has been awake in excess of 19 hours due to the physical and mental impairments of fatigue.

Recommendations for Police Leaders

The substantial number of officers killed and injured while serving their communities is profound and a solemn reminder of law enforcement’s danger.   Combined with the financial impact of resource loss and litigation, the need for improved RM is compelling.

In developing more effective RM strategies, the progressive police leader can play a pivotal role in reducing inherent risk associated with law enforcement.  Another substantial benefit would be improving community trust through improved safety measures and the reduction of financial costs associated with liabilities and litigation.

The aviation industry, another “inherently dangerous” industry, has made remarkable strides in improving safety through the application of risk management practices.  Law enforcement agencies can also achieve greater levels of intelligent decision-making concerning risk through the application of RM.

To properly integrate RM in law enforcement requires that all personnel actively engage in the process.  Many agencies will likely require a paradigm shift in its “para military” culture to successfully attain the full benefits of RM.  Through the success found in the aviation industry and in the authors’ assertions the progressive law enforcement leader would benefit greatly from application of RM to effectively mitigate the inherent risk of providing law enforcement services.

To learn more:

Hall. D. (2014) Risk management challenges in law enforcement. Retrieved from, http://www.riskinstitute.org/peri/component/option,com_bookmarks/Itemid,44/catid,29/navstart,0/task,detail/mode,0/id,783/search,*?

Federal Aviation Administration (2009). Risk management handbook. Federal Aviation Administration: Flight standards service. U.S. Department of Transportation.

National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund: Deaths, Assaults and Injuries (2014). Retrieved from http://www.nleomf.org/facts/officer-fatalities-data/daifacts.html


Lieutenant Darius H. Bone has 29 years of professional experience that spans a wide range of disciplines. Woven throughout his careers are homeland security, public safety and service, risk management, liability mitigation, human factors analysis and aviation safety.  His professional career in public service began as an electrical engineer for a prominent government contracted aerospace corporation, Hughes Aircraft (eight years). For the past 21 years he has worked with the Los Angeles Police Department. Lt. Bone holds a Master’s Degree in Negotiation and Conflict Management from California State University Dominguez Hills.

Dr. Anthony H. Normore (Tony) has 32 years of professional experience. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and currently a Professor of Educational Leadership & Department Chair for Special Needs at California State University Dominguez Hills (Greater Los Angeles). His experiences include a visiting professorship in the Department of Justice Studies at University of Guelph/Humber (Toronto); a graduate professor of law, ethics, and leadership for the Summer Leadership Academy at Columbia University (New York); instructor for inmates at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; and more recently collaborating with Los Angeles Police Department in developing credible leadership for police officers. Dr. Normore is the Chairman of the Criminal Justice Commission for Credible Leadership Development (CJCCLD) with the International Academy of Public Safety.