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Improving police and public safety: a win-win opportunity?

The month of September marks commemorative services for both the United Kingdom’s National Police Memorial Day on the 27th, and the Australian Police Remembrance Day on the 29th. Since modern professional policing developed in the British Isles in the nineteenth century, many thousands of police officers have sacrificed their lives in the interest of public safety. The rates of death on duty have varied enormously over time and between jurisdictions. For example, police fatalities are rare in the United Kingdom. In contrast, they are very much an occupational hazard in South Africa, where 59 officers were killed in 2014 alone.

There are a number of perhaps surprising characteristics of police safety issues, which are common in many countries. Policing tends to be much less dangerous than many occupations—such as construction, mining, forestry, and fishing—but police are frequently at or near the top of lists for occupational homicides. Research also often shows that around three-quarters of police deaths result from accidents, with only a quarter being attributable to attacks. In addition, research clearly shows that the very large majority of police deaths are preventable, often through simple measures, such as restricting high speed vehicle pursuits, or pulling back and calling in specialist negotiators when confronting an armed offender in a siege situation.

Police officer safety might be seen as involving an ‘us-against-them’ situation, where improved protection for police requires greater use of force against the public—especially against offenders—with potential for increased injuries. Officer safety at public demonstrations, for example, might be seen as requiring pre-emptive force. Police unions also often criticise restrictive pursuit policies as giving a green light to offenders. However, there is a growing body of research showing that improved policing tactics can reduce injuries to both police and citizens. A prime example is the adoption of ‘verbal judo’ tactics to de-escalate conflict in encounters with aggressive members of the public.

Another example concerns improved training and procedures around firearms usage and the management of situations involving armed offenders. The New York City Police Department provides an instructive example here. In the early 1970s the streets of the famous city resembled the Wild West when it came to shootouts between cops and crooks. In 1971, 12 officers were shot dead and 47 were shot and injured, while police shot dead 93 people and shot and injured 221. The following decades have seen reductions across these categories of more than 90%. In 2013, the most recent year on record, no officers were shot dead and three were shot and injured. Police shot dead eight people, and shot and injured 17. Despite some ups and downs over more than four decades, the data show a long-term downward trend, with very low numbers in recent years.

How was this remarkable turnaround achieved? A variety of factors most likely played a part, including greatly reduced crime rates and a focused, often controversial, program to take illegal guns off the streets through aggressive stop-and-search practices. There have also been important legal cases limiting police discretion in the use of deadly force. However, it is also the case that major changes have been made to procedures and training, beginning in 1972 and continuing over the years. The Department introduced its own rules limiting justifiable deadly force, including disciplinary action for rule violations. Refresher training was made mandatory for all officers who discharged their firearm. An intensive program of research was also initiated, involving detailed situational analyses of all shooting incidents, focusing on lessons for improved practice. Restraint was made a procedural norm. Innovations in hardware included bullet-resistant vests, semiautomatic handguns, and conducted electricity devices (‘Tasers’).

The results in New York support the proposition made at the beginning of this blog regarding win-win outcomes. Improvements in officer safety can include improvements in public safety, and the strategies should be overlapping and synergetic. This is not to say that cases of large improvements in officer and public safety necessarily represent all that can be done. There have been suggestions, for example, that there is scope for further improvements in the NYPD firearms management system, including findings from a major review by the RAND Corporation. Recommendations include the need for more complex scenario-based training, more demanding testing in pre-service and refresher training, and wider adoption of the less-lethal option of Tasers.

The general lesson here is that willingness to change, and a data-rich, research-driven continuous improvement management model, are the best means of addressing safety and force issues in policing.

Image Credit: “In Memoriam” by L4S. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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