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How to adjust risk variables to increase officer safety

Risk tolerance on the job is ultimately a personal matter where the most effective cops incorporate risk management practices into daily decision-making

Public Duty Doctrine (PDD) discusses the extent to which a legal obligation exists for sworn law enforcement officers to protect the public or risk their lives in the performance of duty. While most LEOs feel a level of responsibility to the public well beyond the minimal obligations found in PDD and law, risk tolerance on the job is ultimately a personal matter where the most effective cops incorporate risk management practices into daily decision-making.

Doing so allows cops to avoid perceiving risk as “just part of the job” — an attitude that can desensitize the matter with potentially disastrous consequences.

Let’s put the concept of risk under the spotlight — specifically risk to the officer of severe injury or death in the line of duty — and suggest a framework to conceptualize the variables and best manage the operational environment.

Risk, Defined
Risk — in the context of this effort — is a measure of overall exposure to hazard. It falls into four categories: high, significant, moderate, and low.

Law enforcement organizations should strive to manage steady state, daily risk at a ‘moderate’ level or below, while accepting occasional incursions into the ‘significant’ category and exposure to ‘high’ risk by exception only. In order to affect this, it is necessary to understand risk as a function of three variables:

1. Probability: This considers the likelihood of encountering a situation where loss of life or severe bodily injury exists to the officer.

2. Vulnerability: This considers an officer’s susceptibility to severe bodily injury or death during an actual incident.

3. Consequence: This considers the impact of an attack to the officer as well as non-officer centric second and third order effects (primarily impacts to loved ones).

Risk = Probability x Vulnerability x Consequence

Managing risk at or below a certain level requires manipulating the magnitude of each variable as much as reasonably possible to optimize the desired risk outcome. What follows is a basic look — neither prescriptive nor definitive — at each of the risk variables to understand the fundamentals behind their inputs and potential for mitigation.

Probability considers the likelihood of encountering a situation where there exists the potential for loss of life or severe bodily injury. It is an expression of your operational environment. Probability assessment involves developing a list of possible situations and determining the likelihood of encountering them expressed in terms of being very likely, probable, possible, or unlikely.

Potential assessment areas include:

Likelihood of a violent encounter
Likelihood of an automobile related accident (in or out of your car)
Likelihood of exposure to stress and associated ailments
Likelihood of exposure to lethal or debilitating pathogens
Likelihood of environmental hazards (floods, fires, HAZMAT)

Crime and violence demographics of a given patrol area or work environment (jails/prisons), participation in certain units (high-risk felony units, drug task forces, special response teams), frequency of vehicle stops in high traffic areas, operations in adverse weather and sustained night operations are some of the more significant determinants of probability assessments.

Mitigating these issues is often beyond the reasonable span of control of most cops — doing so would likely come at the cost of performing a cop’s duty. This is often where the dangerous attitude of risk being “just part of the job” originates, as doing so overlooks the potential impact of addressing the other two risk variables.

The most significant impact an officer can have on the risk equation lies in addressing vulnerabilities. This considers your ability to detect, deter, defend against and/or defeat an attack or to avoid or survive an otherwise life-threatening situation as outlined in the probability section.

While many valid constructs exist to assess an officer’s vulnerability, this effort uses Massad Ayoob’s “four priorities for survival” as a starting point with the addition of a non-prioritized area for physical fitness.

Ratings of excellent, good, fair, and poor characterize these assessment areas.

Potential assessment areas (prioritized) include:

1. Mental awareness and preparedness
2. Application of appropriate tactics
3. Skill/familiarity with safety equipment
4. Equipment selection
5. Physical fitness


• Priority #1: Situational awareness — mindset that anticipates and sees an attack — and the will to live
• Priority #2: Maintaining a position of dominance during suspect searches, approaches and interactions — use of appropriate arrest control techniques; hand-hand combative skills; use of cover and concealment; appropriate use of back-up; maneuvering under fire; effective communications
• Priority #3: Weapons safety — ability to effectively employ primary and backup weapons systems; familiarity with self/first aid; emergency driving competency (to include use of seat belts)
• Priority #4: Appropriately suited personal protection equipment — firearms, ammunition, body armor, less lethal equipment, radios, restraints, eye protection, footwear, vehicles
• Priority #5: Physical fitness — physical ability to execute appropriate tactics and prevail in physical altercations; prevention of stress-related ailments

Severe injury and death are enduring hazards for LEOs. Arguably, most efforts should center on ensuring harmful incidents do not occur in the first place through analysis and mitigation of probability and vulnerability.

However, this does not mean consequence mitigation measures are unimportant as they focus on lessening incident impact to officers and their families.

Mitigation/Consequence Management:

Comprehensive health care
Adequate life insurance
Personal affairs in order – financial, advanced directives, will, power of attorney
Personal relationships in order
Physical fitness (as it applies to aiding recovery)
Mental state (will to survive and carry on through recovery)

Final Analysis
Treating the three risk variables as individual “dials” which can be regulated to zero to eliminate risk is not practical in police work — there will always be inherent risk in wearing the badge. While probability is relatively difficult to manipulate, it is possible to affect significant influence over consequence and most importantly to survival, vulnerability.

How much you choose to take advantage of these opportunities often boils down to an individual decision — one that will be the largest contributor to the magnitude of risk you face on a daily basis.

Lieutenant Colonel Paul C. Wood is assigned to North American Aerospace Defense Command and United States Northern Command (NORAD and USNORTHCOM), Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado where he works in the J5 Plans, Policy and Strategy Division, as the Branch Chief for Homeland Defense Strategy, Policy and Doctrine.