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The ethics of risk assessment for law enforcement

It is our responsibility to assess the risks to ourselves, fellow officers and others, before placing ourselves in jeopardy to save a single life

Nothing can be more harmful to teamwork and collaboration within a police agency than the various ideations of how an officer should react to situations in the field. Officer safety has become such a mantra that when it is not being applied to ostensibly every situation, it is at the forefront of an officer’s thought process. This is not necessarily bad — in fact, it is this level of thinking that can save an officer during the course of his or her duties.

But does it ever become a hindrance or impediment for the officer when faced with a situation where a life could possibly be saved? It’s appropriate to briefly touch on the legality of the officer’s duty to act in the context of the “public duty doctrine,” which legally confines an officer’s duty to the public at large rather than an individual. To the officer who wants to make a tangible difference in the lives of others, this is only comforting in the framework of our litigious society.

It is our responsibility to assess the risks to ourselves, fellow officers and others, before placing ourselves in jeopardy (beyond what is inherent) to save a single life. Besides in-service or specialized training, how can we better prepare to address a situation that is foreign to us?

Critical assessment
I habitually reflect on a lesson I learned in my first police academy. It was the opinion of one of the instructors — at the time a lieutenant who would later become one of my supervisors — that we should fantasize about various situations that an officer might encounter on the job and how we might address them. It seemed off the wall at the time, but this type of atypical mental training can condition an officer for any conceivable scenario. Of course, it doesn’t replace actual training but can be an important tool for preparing an officer for the unexpected.

I want to address how the integrity of the officer safety atmosphere can be preserved without fellow officers diagnosing you with the contemptible “John Wayne” syndrome. First, safety — including officer safety — is one of the principles of ethical policing. If officers forget this and act recklessly, they can place not only themselves in needless peril but civilians and other emergency services personnel as well.

Rather, the officer should consider their skills, training and physical ability before acting in a situation that presents an elevated risk level. I should also include mental ability: This simply translates to whether the officer will be able to make judicious decisions under duress.

We know that officer safety does not always take precedence. For example, in the situation of an active shooter, the priorities focus on neutralizing the threat (bad guy), preserving innocent life and then officer safety. During a traffic contact, however, officer safety is priority when managing what is often termed a “routine” stop. But before acting outside your comfort zone, here are four questions you might ask during the analysis stage:

  1. Adequate Training: Do I have the necessary training to assume the increased risk level and resolve the situation? Am I physically capable?
  2. Level of Experience: Do I possess the experience necessary to address the problem, or do I need to call for a supervisor? Some tasks may require a specialized team or member of the department.
  3. Proper Equipment: Do you have the proper equipment for risk level involved? If you don’t have a personal flotation device, then you might reconsider jumping into the lake to save a drowning person.
  4. Gut Feeling: What does your gut feeling tell you? You have a sixth sense that the decision you’re about to make is not a well-thought as you would like.

If the decision you make is hastily constructed, you lack the necessary training or experience, or proper equipment, then you risk becoming part of the rescue mission. This may reduce the chances of the original victim being rescued because you — the officer — may be the new priority. I teach officers that the use of deadly force is a factually-intensive analysis of the situation.

Taking additional risks in this profession is no different. We want to help those who are vulnerable in a particularly hazardous circumstance — it’s the honor and integrity of the profession. But remember, the right decision may be to prevent the crowd or family members of the victim from entering a dangerous situation. Or contain the situation so that it does not become pervasive, endangering others.

We have to be able to make competent and well-thought decisions, it’s also within the purview of our ethical duty. Engaging in hobbies that relieve the pressures and stress of the job, maintaining good physical condition, and mentally mapping out how you are going to address the “unexpected” are important factors in your success as a law enforcement officer. You will garner the respect of your fellow officers and the community as a whole.

Jon Gaskins has been a law enforcement officer for over fifteen years both at the local and federal levels. He has received numerous instructor certifications, including Firearms, Law Enforcement Driving, Active Shooter and Ethics. Jon has previously been a full-time law enforcement instructor for the federal government and currently instructs on a volunteer basis for the Adams County Sheriff’s Academy in Colorado and works for the Georgetown Police Department. He holds a Master of Science in Management Degree in Information Systems Security as well as a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice. You can interact with Jon on LinkedIn.