Deftly Navigating Risk in a New Reform Era

Recently, Benchmark CEO Ron Huberman and Steve Brewer of Benchmark Risk Solutions discussed the impacts of reform legislation on the risk in law enforcement. The conversation follows the historical arc of law enforcement in the US, public perception of police, and how risk managers and law enforcement leaders confront these issues. Through the lens of risk management, they explored the efficacy of current policy and procedure changes driven by reform legislation and regulatory changes and their intersection with risk management practices like early intervention, officer wellness initiatives, and their impact on public trust.

This post highlights some of the key themes of the webinar and provides additional context and research findings referenced in the discussion. The entire presentation is available in our Resource Center, a free library of research data and analysis available to the public safety and risk management audience.

Disparities in Perception

Ron Huberman: “In the 1990s, the first well-known police misconduct video of the modern era came to be with Rodney King. All of us likely recall that video and its aftermath. Since the advent of video being readily available [via consumer electronics], these videos have continued to shape public opinion as never before.

Trust in policing has always been massively differentiated among different demographic groups, and there are signs those disparities are growing.”

The reference to the Rodney King incident is especially illuminating and revealed a turning point in public perceptions of policing. The proliferation of handheld recording devices, first portable video cameras and later smartphones, has made it easier for bystanders to record interactions between police and citizens. Coinciding with the rise of cable news earlier and now with social media, millions can see these videos within hours of the incident.

A study at the time showed that, within 30 days of the Rodney King incident, as many as 93% of Los Angeles residents had seen the video on television news. The footage quickly impacted public perception, with groups of white, black, and Latino residents all responding at more than 90% that “police officers used too much force in dealing with King.” When similar survey groups were questioned three years later on their perception of police, a demographic disparity reappeared. Trust in the police rose to levels last noted in 1988, showing a more than ten percentage point gap between white and black respondents.

Evidence suggests this disparity has grown over time. A report from the Pew Research Center points to a correlation between personal experience with police and demographic disparities in perception. Black adults are five times more likely to report being stopped due to their race than white respondents at a rate of 44% versus 9%. Further research has shown past encounters with police as a substantial predictor of perception of police.

Punitive Settlements

Ron Huberman: “One of two fundamental arguments [from plaintiffs’ attorneys] are occurring. One is the ‘wanton and indifferent’, or ‘you weren’t competent and responsible in your governance and didn’t take action where you should have known to do so’. The second is that the police department didn’t know there was this problem or pattern of conduct and – very importantly – that they should have known.

When they’re successful in either of those arguments, we see the general trend in the [risk management marketplace] is that jurors are trying to be highly punitive – given their new societal view of policing.”

The previous section showed that public perception of policing is impacted by media and the availability of videos of alleged or sustained misconduct. In misconduct litigation, the plaintiffs’ attorneys may seek to leverage these shifting perceptions to produce more favorable outcomes and larger settlements for their clients. However, it is essential to note that perception does not always track with reality.

There is indeed observed growth in the cost of misconduct settlements, especially in larger cities. This growth in settlement costs creates strain on municipal budgets and insurance and reinsurance markets. However, the ever-rising costs of settlements do not necessarily indicate that misconduct is more prevalent, despite public perceptions that it is. Data from the University of Chicago revealed that there has been “no apparent increase in the frequency of law enforcement claims, [since 2014]” but that settlement costs have multiplied in the same period. While a causal relationship has not been determined, it is thought that diminished public perception of police likely contributes to these growing settlement amounts despite the number of claims staying relatively flat or even lessening over time.

Mental Health and Wellness

Steve Brewer: “The awareness of the impacts of mental health has led to a lot of programs taking shape and resources being made available, either at the agency level or through third parties. These programs are critical because a growing body of research shows that officers operating at their full capacity – mental, physical, emotional – and as they are trained to do, generally perform well and have a lower risk. Often, where there is a lot of overtime, a lack of sleep, and mental trauma from issues like PTSD that are untreated, it can lead to the escalation of a lot of adverse outcomes.”

Agencies have an ethical obligation to support and enhance their officer’s mental, emotional, and physical wellness. Beyond that, an officer experiencing issues with their health and readiness is a knowable risk factor in policing. In one study, 56% of officers surveyed experienced burnout with their job, which contributed to feelings of callousness towards their work and the public. Other studies have shown that as many as 15% of officers experience post-traumatic stress disorder in their careers, which affects decision-making, sleep patterns, susceptibility to drug and alcohol abuse, and emotional responses. These factors potentially contribute to the likelihood of an officer engaging in behavior that could harm themselves, their career, and their agency’s standing in the community.

Evidence-based wellness programming is the right thing to do for officers’ health, but it can also improve outcomes and help curb the risk of claims and litigation. Case studies have shown the efficacy of wellness programming and intervention in law enforcement. Peer support has been an incredibly effective means of enhancing wellness and boosting officer performance, with approximately 90% of officers surveyed reporting they would recommend peer support to a colleague.

The focus on wellness needs to be holistic, incorporating many intersecting facets of wellness. For instance, a lack of sleep can contribute to higher instances of vehicle collisions, which carry both risks of injury and claims, and compassion fatigue, which can accelerate symptoms of burnout. Programs promoting physical fitness are shown to reduce on-the-job injuries by as much as 40%, which has the potential to reduce compensable injuries and short-staffing due to recovery and rehabilitation after such injuries. Furthermore, in encounters requiring the use of force, a higher level of physical fitness among officers may reduce the probability of excessive force leading to death or injury and subsequent litigation involving both the subject and the officer.

What is knowable?

Steve Brewer: “I’m going to pose a question: what percentage of adverse events in policing are predictable? Take a guess.

Our research finds that the number is between 50% and 65%. Between a half and two-thirds of events in policing today follow a pattern of observable behavior. The research showed and validated that it is incredibly knowable.”

The keyword here is “knowable.” Early intervention can help guard against claims that arise when the plaintiff’s attorney can show that an agency should have known there was a problem and failed to act. State-of-the-art data aggregation and analysis are necessary to attain this high level of predictability in a data model. Less effective analysis, typically seen in informal or threshold-based early intervention, is unlikely to achieve the level of predictive performance that First Sign® Early Intervention delivers. Studies looking at the method of predictive analysis used in First Sign “found high-risk officers identified by prediction models experienced adverse events at a rate 1.7 times higher than those identified by a rule-based EIS” and that rate of accuracy in identifying high-risk officers increased by 75% while false identifications dropped by 20%.

Mitigating knowable risk is the bedrock of highly effective practices in both early intervention and risk management. The two are inextricably linked and are essential to promoting better policing outcomes for agencies and the public they serve. Benchmark Risk Solutions™ and First Sign operate on this fundamental premise and work in tandem to help law enforcement leaders and risk managers know these risks and understand the tools they have to address potential issues before they escalate.

To see the presentation in its entirety, visit our Resource Center.