Applying Systems Thinking to Law Enforcement Safety: Recommendation for a Comprehensive Safety Management Framework

Maggie DeBoard

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

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Each year, more than 100 law enforcement officers are killed on the job in training accidents, operations, and emergency response.[1] Fatalities, however, tell only part of the story. Although accurate statistics for police officer injuries do not exist, estimates indicate that “approximately 100,000 police officers experience occupational injuries or illnesses each year.”[2] It is also believed that many of these injuries and deaths are preventable.[3]

While the law enforcement profession has begun to place an emphasis on safety with the goal of reducing injuries and fatalities, the approach has focused narrowly on the development of programs in targeted high-risk areas, such as driving and health and wellness. These safety programs often operate independently and without coordination with other safety initiatives, and fail to incorporate dedicated and trained safety personnel to provide oversight on safety programs and practices. Unfortunately, this approach allows for gaps in safety management that lead to injuries and fatalities that could be prevented.

With the goal of developing a framework for a comprehensive law-enforcement safety management system, analysis was conducted to identify the best safety programs, policies, and practices in private industry and government organizations. These programs and practices were evaluated for effectiveness, comprehensiveness, and applicability to the law enforcement profession.

One of the complicating factors for this task is the absence of accurate data on law enforcement accidents and injuries, due largely to the lack of a reporting mandate within the profession and the reluctance of many agencies to share information.[4] Although national databases capture statistics on officers assaulted and killed in the line of duty, no such database exists for officer injuries.[5] Accurate data on law enforcement accidents and injuries is needed to properly assess and understand the range, nature, and cause of officer-related injuries and fatalities across the policing profession, so that effective prevention strategies can be implemented.

During the course of research, the author identified areas of high-risk in law enforcement that contribute to a large number of preventable injuries and fatalities in the profession. These areas include a strong sub-culture that supports a higher level of risk taking in operations; training exercises, especially scenario-based training involving use of force and defensive tactics; driving and traffic-related incidents, with the failure to wear seatbelts identified as a significant contributor; fatigue and complacency; and physical and emotional health and wellness.[6]

Then, the safety programs, practices, and initiatives of law enforcement and other high-risk organizations were examined. Current law enforcement efforts include specific safety-related programs in targeted high-risk areas, such as traffic and vehicle operation programs, as well as myriad health and wellness initiatives, but indicate the lack of a systematic or comprehensive approach that is coordinated or supported through national efforts. In contrast to law enforcement efforts, an examination of the fire service and the military indicates a strong focus on safety with standards, regulations, and programs implemented and coordinated across the profession and through the various branches of the military. These organizations also place an emphasis on the mitigation of operational risk through validated programs such as crew resource management. The fire service further sets itself apart from law enforcement by the detailed collection of injury and fatality data from various professional organizations. Safety programs in private industry reveal an emphasis on behavioral-based programs that focus attention on the unsafe behaviors of employees and place responsibility for workplace safety directly on the worker rather than on workplace conditions.[7] Safety programs in private industry are also heavily influenced by federal regulations and standards imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Research findings indicate that numerous issues contribute to the number of preventable injuries and fatalities in the law enforcement profession. These include the following:

  • a failure to take a systems approach to safety management;
  • a lack of dedicated safety personnel to oversee high-risk operations and training environments;
  • a lack of education programs for senior management and rank and file officers on Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) management;
  • a lack of a national mandate and reporting depository for injuries and accidents;
  • a lack of regulations and standards for safety across the profession;
  • a lack of a mandated and standardized after-action review format and process to capture and share lessons learned;
  • a failure to incorporate OHS as a discipline within law enforcement.

To address the deficiencies found in managing law enforcement safety, a framework for a law-enforcement safety management system was developed and is offered as a flexible model that can be adapted to agencies of any size and implemented without significant cost or extra resources. Other recommendations to improve safety within the profession include the following:

  • the development of standardized OHS and risk management training for both senior leadership and rank and dedicated safety personnel;
  • the development of a comprehensive, national survey regarding safety management practices across the profession;
  • the development of a national mandate and reporting depository for injuries and accidents;
  • and the development of a standardized format for after-action review reports (AARs) and training to conduct AAR processes.

The vast number of independent law enforcement agencies across the country—more than 18,000—poses a significant challenge to the development of a standardized approach to law enforcement safety. Police organizations operate independently, and priorities differ vastly for each agency amid political and budgetary concerns. Resources to develop and implement safety, health, and wellness programs is also a significant challenge in today’s economic climate of shrinking budgets, and the culture within law enforcement organizations contributes to a pattern of acceptable risk-taking that leads to repeated injuries and accidents. Although risks vary and not all injuries and fatalities can be prevented, law enforcement continues to experience problems in similar areas, suggesting that organizational culture plays a key role in failing to address safety-related deficiencies.

Despite the challenges, agency leadership can immediately begin to institute cultural changes by placing a priority on safety in their organizations. The proposed law-enforcement safety management framework offers a viable option for agencies to manage safety without adding significant resources, presenting a systematic approach to identifying hazards, and developing measures to control and mitigate risk.

The high-risk environment and nature of work conducted by law enforcement officers demands a holistic and dedicated approach to safety in order to reduce injuries and fatalities throughout the profession. Meaningful improvements in safety will require significant change and collaboration across the profession, input from a broad spectrum of disciplines, and leadership and support from national law enforcement organizations. The cost of the current approach toward safety within the profession is too great to ignore.

[1] Steven G. Brandl and Meghan S. Stroshine, “The Physical Hazards of Police Work Revisited,” Police Quarterly 15 (2012): 262–282.

[2] Tom La Tourrette, “Safety and Health Protection Efforts in the Police Service,” Police Chief June 2011, http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display_arch&article_id=2403&issue_id=62011.

[3] Yousry A. Zakhary, “A Zero Tolerance Approach to Officer Injuries,” Police Chief, June 2008, http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display_arch&article_id=1510&issue_id=62008.

[4] International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Reducing Officer Injuries: Final Report. (Alexandria, VA: IACP, 2014).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Julia Hill et al., Making Officer Safety and Wellness Priority One: A Guide to Educational Campaigns (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2014); La Tourrette, “Safety and Health Protection Efforts in the Police Service”; David Griffith, “Training Accidents,” Police 37, no. 4 (2013), 47–51; Darrel Stephens, Mora L. Fiedler and Steven M. Edwards, OSW Group Annual Summary: Issues and Recommendations Discussed for Improving the Well-being of Police Officers (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2012).

[7] James Frederick and Nancy Lessin, “Blame the Worker: The Rise of Behavioral-Based Safety Programs.” Multinational Monitor (2000): 10–17.

2 Comments

  • Frederick Cahn

    June 2018 at 8:09 am Reply

    Please let me know how I can get more information on this topic

    • Steve Twing

      June 2018 at 6:00 am Reply

      Please send an e-mail from a working e-mail account to hsaj@nps.org for more information.

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