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Perspective

Risk Management and Police Training

By Thomas Connelly

Picture of police officer on motorcycle training around cones.

Captain Connelly retired from the Los Altos, California Police Department.

Captain Connelly

While undergoing hostage rescue training, an officer is seriously wounded with a firearm mistaken for an “air soft” training gun. During an active-shooter exercise, a sheriff’s deputy recruit suffers a gunshot resulting in the amputation of a finger and later files a negligence lawsuit. In the midst of filming a training exercise, an officer was gravely injured after an explosive device detonated and door fragments struck him in the abdomen.1 And, the list goes on.

To safeguard communities from crime, violence, and acts of terrorism, police organizations hire the most qualified candidates available and train them to be their best. However, agencies sometimes may not take adequate measures to reduce the risk of injuries and casualties.

Training accidents, many with tragic consequences, have occurred throughout law enforcement’s history. To help decrease such incidents, police executives, managers, and instructors must recognize the need for risk management and incorporate contemporary safety protocols into their training plans and programs.

Training for Dangerous Work

As the law enforcement profession and technology have advanced over the past few decades, officers have faced elevated levels of risk in the training environment. Thirty years ago, police training primarily consisted of classroom-based instruction supplemented with some practical activities. Now, particularly as technology has flourished, it has evolved to include more experiential and scenario-based exercises simulating situations that officers will encounter in the field. Such training always presents more risk and potential for injury than classroom teaching. Any scenario-based exercises; firearms-related training, routine or not; vehicle operations courses; training involving physical tasks, including those combined with specialized knowledge (e.g., rappelling); and a myriad of other examples present an elevated level of danger.

Today, the public has increased expectations of law enforcement, and this has impacted training. Police response to active-shooter situations represents one high-profile example. Until the tragic massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, first-responding officers generally secured the perimeters and waited for the arrival of SWAT teams. However, after Columbine, the policing industry recognized the need to incorporate measures to minimize the loss of life in ongoing spree-killing events, which still occur with disturbing regularity. Law enforcement developed new protocols and began training officers to achieve higher levels of tactical awareness and proficiency in these situations. Now, line officers learn basic hostage rescue tactics, a task previously handled by well-equipped and highly trained SWAT officers. Most of the active-shooter courses include scenario-based training incorporating unloaded or simulated firearms, along with classroom instruction. Sometimes, officers complete a live-firing component at a range. Such instruction, which can involve students who have less exposure to the intricacies of the requisite tactics using real or simulated weapons, presents risk.

Years ago, I participated in SWAT training that ended with a tragic and preventable death. During a hostage rescue exercise on a commuter train, one of the role players, a reserve officer, was shot and killed with a supposedly unloaded firearm. This young man left behind a wife and a young son. I witnessed this incident from just a few feet away, and I still can see the images of this senseless and avoidable tragedy. How did a loaded firearm get into a “sterile” training environment? Could I have done anything to prevent this accident from occurring?

After such tragedies, an investigation commences to determine what went wrong. Police executives assure their staff and the public that they will find out what happened and make sure that it does not occur again. Unfortunately, it does. Those involved never think these incidents will happen to them.

The residual carnage in the aftermath of these events is predictable and cuts far deeper than the victims and their families. Most witnesses to these tragedies wonder why, during “just another routine training day,” the accident happened. Everyone involved shares some of the same life-altering feelings and emotions. Many assume some responsibility, mostly emotionally and privately.

So, what costs accompany these senseless incidents? These tragic events take a devastating toll not only on those affected but on the professional reputation and internal operations of an organization. Entire agencies, perhaps multiple ones, are deeply impacted and changed forever. The liability exposure proves immense. Postevent investigations may result in criminal prosecutions. Otherwise successful careers become marred and, oftentimes, end. Nearly always, some type of wrongful death or negligence lawsuit follows; the cost of defending, litigating, and resolving them levies a huge financial burden on organizations.

What is the life of a police officer worth? More important, could the money used for the costs of investigating the incident, defending the lawsuit, paying settlements or negative judgments, and financing the postevent psychological intervention have helped proactively ensure a safer training environment? Why do these tragedies occur with such frequency and predictability? How can law enforcement fix the problem?

The answers to many unresolved questions prove complex. However, the basic response to the problem simply is prevention through proactive risk management and enhanced training plan development. Ineffective foresight and planning, along with, perhaps, some level of complacency, in the training environment represent the most common factors that lead to preventable accidents. Agencies must develop processes to adequately identify and address these factors.

Mitigating Potential Threats

Creating a truly safe training environment requires foresight, risk assessment, and preparation. Departments must have an organizationwide commitment to safety. While planning and developing courses, agencies must proactively identify danger and implement effective policies, procedures, and precautions well before any student participates. And, trainers and department leaders must be thoroughly knowledgeable of risk management techniques.

Law enforcement executives must institutionalize systems (e.g., policies, procedures, and practices) designed to identify risks in the training arena and develop processes to mitigate those risks. Leaders need to communicate and enforce, through rewards and consequences, their expectations throughout the organization. Agencies must have an unwavering, top-down organizational commitment to safety in the training environment. They also must ensure adequate instructor training and organizational resources, including funding, to address safety protocol development and implementation. Finally, leaders must exemplify and communicate this dedication to safety through their words and, more important, their actions.

The selection of highly qualified and committed trainers is essential to ensure the success of any law enforcement training program, especially in higher risk environments. Trainers must be committed to safety, educated on training plan development and risk analysis, and open to changing their techniques to meet emerging needs and trends. They also must display sound risk analysis and innovative thinking capabilities. And, they never can exhibit complacency.

Agencies also need to adopt contemporary training safety practices. As the hazardous training environments and courses are unique and varied, so are the resultant safety considerations that departments need to address. Safety policies and procedures need to be flexible, adaptable, and fluid so they effectively relate to varying training practices, environments, and plans. Additionally, agencies must incorporate into their training programs a system of checks and balances that reflect the appropriate level of risk.

All law enforcement leaders and trainers should proactively seek information, advice, and education in critical safety processes. Some helpful, readily available resources include the International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Tactical Officers’ Association, national and regional training officers’ associations, state police training oversight organizations, and other law enforcement trainers. Some private vendors, particularly manufacturers of various police weapons, restraint devices, and force-on-force training equipment, also offer instructor development courses that focus on training safety.

Conclusion

Law enforcement agencies must make training safety an organizationwide priority and a clearly defined expectation. Training naturally presents some level of risk; however, agencies must proactively identify and mitigate danger. Departments need to ensure the incorporation and support of contemporary safety procedures. Further, agencies must encourage students to proactively identify perceived hazards and speak out without fear of ridicule or retribution.

Needless and avoidable training incidents resulting in injury or death should not continue. By taking the appropriate steps, departments can protect officers and allow them to continue to serve their communities.

Endnotes

1 Incidents were collected from various issues of CATO News, published quarterly by the California Association of Tactical Officers.

09.09.10

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