June 23, 2021 | Gordon Graham
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article.
We are in Family Five of the 10 Families of Risk—Operational Risks. In past articles I have emphasized that most of what the women and men of American law enforcement do, they are doing right. But when things don’t go right, it usually gets down to internal error—mistakes made by our own good people. When you study where mistakes are mostly likely to occur in any occupation or profession, too many fall in the top left box of the risk/frequency matrix. Those high-risk, low-frequency events can be further subdivided into events that give you no time to think and events that do give you time to think.
High-risk, low-frequency events that don’t give you time to think are the “core critical tasks” of your job. For you to be able to respond effectively to them, you need daily training and verification of level of knowledge. That is the reason for the Daily Training Bulletins provided by Lexipol.
However, most of these high-risk, low-frequency events do not fall into the core critical task category. Most give you time to think. In my last few articles, I have beat this to death: If you have time to think, use it to make a good decision.
Once again, here is the decision-making process I developed decades ago:
- Identify and clarify the issue. If it is a preservation-of-life event, act immediately (#8). Short of that, identify what needs to be decided.
- Do I have time to think? If so, move on to #3. If not, hopefully you picked this up on your risk assessment and through constant training have learned how to best act in this situation.
- Can I handle this event? If so, move to #4. If not, get it to someone who can handle it and follow through to make sure it got done.
- What is the policy of our agency re: this event? If policy exists, follow the policy. If there is no policy, refer to the mission statement of your organization and make sure your action is consistent with this statement.
- What is our past practice in this type of event? You may not have handled this type of event before, but maybe someone in your organization has. Consistency is critical.
- What are the ethical issues involved in this event? We must be concerned not just about doing things right but doing the right thing right.
- What are the consequences of my actions? Smart people consider consequences before they occur.
- Make and implement your decision. Remember it is not too late to go back to #1 to make sure you are still headed in the right direction.
- Document as necessary why you did what you did.
- If you learned something new, share it with your peers.
We have adequately covered the first two steps in the process, identify what needs to be decided and determine whether you have time to think. If step two is a “no,” hopefully you recognized this in your ongoing risk assessment process and have been provided the daily training necessary to ensure you know how to do this task.
Every contact made by every public safety employee is an opportunity to let our public know there is a police department or a fire department or a 911 dispatch center that responds to calls and if the involved employee can’t handle it, they find someone who can.
But if step two is a “yes,” then move onto step three, the considerations regarding jurisdiction. Does your job assignment allow you to handle this type of event? In my experience public safety personnel have broad discretion, so the question will usually be answered with a yes and you can move on to steps four through ten. But if your response to step three is a “no,” then you should try to find the organization or individual that does have jurisdiction regarding the involved event.
Consider this example: A police officer arrives at a vandalism call at a residence. The homeowner suspects someone has intentionally flooded his home, but your officer quickly determines the cause of the flooding is a broken water line inside the home. There is no crime involved.
Let’s see where we are on the decision-making process.
- Your cop has identified the issue: a broken water line. There is no instant “preservation of life” concern.
- Step two—there is time to think, so your officer moves on to step three of the process.
- A broken water line inside a home is not the job of a police officer. Technically, your officer could leave the scene thinking, “This is not my job; what the heck was dispatch doing sending me to this nonsense call?”
But would it not be better for the involved cop to try to locate the valve to turn off the water at the main line and notify the fire department to help drain water from the home? Is it possible the city water department could help? Granted, the water line is inside a home and the involved pipe is the property of the homeowner and not the city, but perhaps the water department could provide some advice to the homeowner.
Not to switch topics in the middle of this article, but if it was your mom or dad who had this problem in another city in another state, what would you want the involved officer do in this situation? This may be the only contact this homeowner has ever had with the city. Perhaps your cop is the first city employee they have ever dealt with.
I think the answer to this question is pretty obvious: You’d want the officer do what he or she can to help your mom or dad (the homeowner) in this situation. And to really close the loop, it would be a good idea for the involved cop to stop by the home on her/his next shift and see how the homeowner is doing and if there is anything else they need.
Some of you may be thinking this is overkill and we do not have the time to do this and this was not a police department issue and why is Graham worried about this?
But if it was your mom or dad who had this problem in another city in another state, what would you want the involved officer do in this situation?
Every contact made by every public safety employee is an opportunity to let our public know there is a police department or a fire department or a 911 dispatch center that responds to calls and if the involved employee can’t handle it, they find someone who can, and they follow up to make sure things got taken care of. Remember, this homeowner has been paying property taxes and sales taxes for years—AND is a voter and a future juror.
Every contact counts, especially in a time when public safety services—law enforcement especially, but also other services—are under the microscope. We cannot assume our community members have a positive view of law enforcement, the fire department, or other city services. We must earn it.
Here is the bottom line for this article: If you do not have jurisdiction on a given event and it is “not your job,” get it to the people who can handle it and follow through to make sure it got handled.
TIMELY TAKEAWAY—Our public is fed up with a lack of customer service. I regularly see letters to the editor and human-interest stories where a cop or a firefighter or an EMT or a corrections officer did something to help even though it was not their job. To a lot of people, this is a very big deal. If you see these stories in your news, use them as examples to start a discussion with your personnel about what they can do to improve the image of your agency.
GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.More Posts
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Your first challenge is to help us figure out the right balance between officer safety and respectful kindness. Your second task is to show us what this looks like and teach us how to do it.