The science of management of risk in law enforcement

Policing is a risky business: fact! Having to make tough and dynamic decisions, to do the right thing, in ambiguity and uncertainty is all part of everyday policing. Following several enquiries from academic researchers and indeed some policing professionals, here is some information about the management of risk. Firstly let’s take a look at MoRiLE – the management of risk in law enforcement – then the ten national risk principles that should underpin law enforcement. Getting academic research involved in these principles could be of use in enhancing research context and impact. In EMPAC we appreciate the culture of academic research is sometimes at odds with the ‘real’time’ requirements of professional practice. This information over ‘risk’ linked to the national decision making may help explain how the working environment of professional policing practice operates continually around taking decisions when there is seldom definitive data. That’s one of the reasons why EMPAC is interested in heuristic  approaches (a heuristic technique from the Greek  “find” or “discover” is any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals) – such as using Bayesian principles – see that feature here:

EMPAC is driving research that understands the dynamic context of professional policing and offers insight about public demand, in a usable way;  just as General Medical Practitioners need to make speedy assessments and judgements, but informed by accessible research. MoRiLE processes help inform risk, threat and harm assessments in the East Midlands, like elsewhere in the UK, to inform our regional research and development priorities. There is a balance too: for tactical and strategic understanding – we aim to create a research environment for both! For further reading: Carson, D. and Bain, A. (2008) Professional Risk and Working with People: Decision-Making in Health, Social Care and Criminal Justice.


What is MoRiLE?

MoRiLE is an intelligence programme to create prioritisation and business intelligence tools for law enforcement. The MoRiLE  is a national project that is developing a suite of risk prioritisation models and processes that all law enforcement agencies can use to better understand their risks. It is being delivered on behalf of the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC).

To date the project has created a thematic risk model that is used for strategic assessment and planning processes. The next phase, is to develop Tactical, Resource Allocation and Organisational Risk models that link seamlessly to give a comprehensive understanding of Threat, Harm, Risk, and the Law Enforcement Agencies Capacity and Capability to deliver against them. This will be underpinned  with an outline IT solution that automates the processes and brings the information from all of the models together.

Click here to see an example of a MoRiLE dashboard.

Morile dashboard example

The models are used to inform decision making, not replace decision makers, and are designed to be easy to use and understand (approximately 30 minutes instruction required for anyone using the model/processes). It enables a wide range of issues to be assessed alongside each other, including the assessment of Partner’s priorities alongside those of Law Enforcement. The information can also be aggregated and disaggregated to provide a comprehensive picture of risk at a Local, Regional and National level.

You can read more about MoRiLE here:

There is an active Twitter National Analyst Working Group community here as well you may find interesting:  http://Mtwitter: NAWG Law enforcement@PoliceNAWG


The Risk Principles

The College of Policing and the National Police Chief’s Council’s approval of ten risk principles is a first step towards the police service encouraging a more positive approach to risk by openly supporting decision makers and building their confidence in taking risks. It can help policing become more of a learning organisational culture (in particular see Principle 8).

The ten principles convey strong and consistent messages about the nature and consequences of risk taking and should provide reassurance to the public and the police service. When police officers and staff use the national decision model (NDM) and the principles, they have a more flexible policing environment where they are better equipped and supported in exercising professional judgement.


Principle 1

The willingness to make decisions in conditions of uncertainty (ie, risk taking) is a core professional requirement of all members of the police service.

Uncertainty is an inherent feature of operational decision making

By definition, decisions involve uncertainty, ie, the likelihood and impact of possible outcomes cannot be totally predicted, and no particular outcome can be guaranteed. Operational incidents are by their nature dynamic. Decision making in dynamic situations often has to take place on the basis of incomplete or inaccurate information, and can be exacerbated by ambiguity, confusion, contradictions, ill-defined problems, blurred boundaries and other factors affecting the amount of control that can be applied. Making decisions in an operational context is a form of risk taking.

Risk relates to anything uncertain in the future. It is everywhere – at work, at home, at play, in both activity and inactivity. If everything was known about a situation, or there was complete control over it, there would be no risk. Thus, every operational problem awaiting a decision can be restated as a risk. Viewing decision making as risk taking allows the police service to focus on controlling and improving the quality of decision making. Risk taking offers the possibility of harm but also the chance of success.  As a natural part of life risk should not be feared, yet the term has assumed negative connotations, ie, that something is a risk only when the chance of harm and criticism is high. As a result, making risk decisions has become associated with blame, fear, internal and external inquiries and, therefore, something to be avoided. Despite the inherent uncertainty, however, operational decision making provides the opportunity for success as well as the possibility of harm. As professional risk takers, members of the police service must be willing to take risks rather than avoid them.

Using their special legal authority and access to resources, police officers are expected to respond to risks and act in the face of uncertainty. Avoiding making a decision because of the level of uncertainty, or simply to avoid the possibility of harm, is unprofessional and could have disastrous consequences both for the public and the police.   Although the risk of harm always exists, more often than not police operational decisions are successful and harm does not occur. Officers must take risks in order to learn to be a good risk taker.


Principle 2

Maintaining or achieving the safety, security and wellbeing of individuals and communities is a primary consideration in risk decision making.

The police have a duty to confront risks and to make risk decisions on behalf of the communities they serve. Protection of the public (directly and indirectly) is the primary consideration for all decisions made by police officers and staff. Fear of being criticised if harm results from a risk decision should not distract the police from their duty to protect the public. Even though making a decision involves the risk of criticism if harm occurs, this risk to the reputation of a police force or an individual member is secondary to the primary responsibility to protect life. Although there is a duty to protect life, this duty is not absolute.

Court judgments have consistently said there can be no rigid standard regarding the positive obligation to protect life. They emphasise that police officers are entitled and expected to take other considerations into account. See, for example, re Officer L [2007] UKHL 36, para 21 (in relation to the positive obligations on authorities under Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights). The standard is based on reasonableness, which brings in consideration of the circumstances of the case, the ease or difficulty of taking precautions and the resources available. In this way, the state is not expected to undertake an unduly burdensome obligation: it is not obliged to satisfy an absolute standard requiring the risk to be averted, regardless of all other considerations.


Principle 3

Risk taking involves judgement and balance. Decision makers are required to consider the value and likelihood of the possible benefits of a particular decision against the seriousness and likelihood of the possible harms.

Risk takers should consider and compare the value of the likely benefits and the possible harms of their proposed decision. Decision makers must be able to exercise sound judgement in coming to an appropriate decision. They should consider how to make the benefits more likely and valuable, and the harms less likely and less serious. Practitioners may be unused to identifying potential benefits but they can do this simply by identifying and assessing the short, medium and long-term benefits of their proposed risk decisions. In the event of subsequent scrutiny, practitioners should be prepared to communicate (to judges and others) the perceived importance and likelihood of those beneficial outcomes. In the face of uncertainty the object is to think clearly and rigorously to obtain the best possible picture, without pretending that the comparison can ever be exact. If it becomes apparent that a decision cannot be justified because the seriousness of the likely harm exceeds the potential value of the possible benefits, an alternative decision should be considered. Greater consideration and mitigating action should be directed at serious risks where the likelihood of harm is high.

Risks relating to minor offences need consideration and appropriate action, particularly as repeating a particular risk decision (eg, to stop and search someone) can affect the public’s perception of the police. Greater effort should go into addressing the risks that may cause the most harm (eg, offences which result in people being killed or seriously physically and emotionally injured). The seriousness of a risk should be determined by examining both the gravity of the outcome and its likelihood. For example, something may be extremely serious if it happens, but highly unlikely to occur at a particular time. A person can be killed crossing a road but this does not – and should not – stop people from crossing roads. If the potentially serious outcome is unlikely to happen, then it can be a wise risk to take.

This approach (ie, determining the likely seriousness and degree of possible harm):enables efforts to be focused on reducing the risk posed by those considered to represent or be at highest risk. takes account of the need for a proportionate, cost effective and practical response allows the police to target resources where most needed and to improve the security of the community even further. The rigour of operational decision making must be proportionate to the seriousness of the risks involved and be supported by appropriate, considered and robust systems. Effective risk taking relies on decision makers being able to make quality decisions, ie, recognising risks, thinking through possible solutions (at the same time weighing up the likely benefits and possible harms of each) and then managing the risk while implementing the chosen solution (often but not always in fast time).

Forces are responsible for ensuring officers and staff are able to apply a range of risk-related knowledge, skills and techniques when dealing with operational incidents. This includes:

-inserting risk into national, regional and local plans, training courses and audit processes
-using validated formal risk models, wherever possible, to address specific types of offences and situations (such as domestic abuse)
-establishing partnerships between the police and others, eg, multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA) and multi-agency risk assessment conferences (MARAC) and providing appropriate equipment for operational activities, and training in its use enabling senior officers – through training, assessment and monitoring – to provide effective leadership when commanding operational situations.


Principle 4

Harm can never be totally prevented. Risk decisions should, therefore, be judged by the quality of the decision making, not by the outcome.

It is in the nature of risk taking that harm, including serious harm, will sometimes occur. The task of identifying, assessing and managing risk is challenging, yet many people judge risk decisions simply by examining the end result, ie, whether the decisions led to success or failure, to benefits or harm. The law, however, recognises that harm will sometimes occur irrespective of the quality of the decision making, and does not require that all risks are eliminated. If it becomes apparent that a decision cannot be justified because the seriousness of the likely harms exceeds the potential value of the possible benefits, an alternative decision should be considered.

The fact that a good risk decision sometimes has a poor outcome does not mean the decision was wrong. Even when all the right and appropriate precautions have been taken, injuries and deaths may still occur. Good risk management should increase the likelihood of successful decisions but will not, in itself, guarantee that harm will not occur. Similarly, it cannot be assumed that a decision was right just because no harm occurred

Although the risk of harm always exists when a decision is made, more often than not the decision is successful and harm does not occur. Some successful outcomes, however, may happen in spite of poor decision making or management. A risk decision should be judged by how it was made, implemented and managed rather than by the outcome

Rather than focusing on the outcome, assessments of decisions should concentrate on whether they were reasonable and appropriate for the circumstances existing at the time. If they were, the decision maker should not be blamed for a poor outcome. Good risk management can to help reduce potential harms and increase potential benefits. Officers and staff should not focus exclusively on risk identification and risk assessment but consider also the potential for risk management. Whereas risk management (eg, the use of skills and resources) can remedy a poor risk assessment, the converse does not apply.

Formal risk identification (RI), assessment (RA) and management (RM) processes and tools are a useful aid to decision making in relation to reducing the risk posed by serious offenders.  Expectations about risk assessments, decisions and management must be realistic. No matter how good they appear to be, it is impossible to use the information derived from a formal risk instrument to predict with certainty the behaviour of an individual or the outcome of a particular situation. RI, RA and RM tools should be regarded as an excellent but limited, means of improving the likelihood of identifying and preventing future offending or victimisation. They can enhance professional judgement but not replace it.

Risk assessment necessarily involves value judgements when assessing the importance or seriousness of different outcomes (eg, how valuable it is to convict a suspected paedophile, or how serious it is to put a child through the trauma of a court appearance while pursuing a conviction). The police service and other agencies can legitimately disagree on these topics but should avoid imposing personal opinions by calling on professional values whenever possible. No values, however, are involved when predicting the likelihood of different outcomes occurring. The duty is to obtain the most reliable, scientific assessment possible.


Principle 5

Making risk decisions, and reviewing others’ risk decision making, is difficult. 

This needs to take into account whether they involved dilemmas or emergencies, were part of a sequence of decisions or might appropriately be taken by other agencies. The quality of risk decisions is inevitably affected by the many influences that decision makers are subjected to

In their daily professional lives, police decision makers are subjected to numerous influences. These can impact individually or in some combination on how an officer reacts to and manages a given situation, and can have a profound effect on the likelihood of harm or benefit arising from a decision. While many of these influences are formal (eg, legislative, hierarchical, policy and procedural constraints) others are intangible or much less formal, but no less powerful. When a risk decision is being reviewed, the full conditions and influences existing at the time should be identified and examined to determine whether the action taken was reasonable in those circumstances.

Risk decisions do not occur in a vacuum. Influences on risk decisions include:

-The dynamic nature of risks in the policing environment – risks are seldom static. Situations alter, sometimes undergoing rapid and frequent change. Constant monitoring is needed to reassess and manage risks.
-The context within which a decision is made – this is multi-layered and multi-faceted, and has the potential to increase or reduce a particular threat.
-Previous decisions – it is unfair to take a risk decision out of the context of those that preceded it, as they will have formed part of the reasoning that went into the final action taken.
-Organisational factors – factors to be taken into account include the availability of resources, the effect of time constraints, the existence of suitable policies and processes, access to effective information systems, the effects of workload and shift work, the example set by managers, the nature and extent of supervision and the effects of the police culture.
-Personal factors – in reacting to and managing a risk situation, a decision maker is influenced by many personal factors including their own knowledge, experience, skills, characteristics, values, preferences and emotions.
-External factors – decision making can be affected to varying degrees by factors such as knowledge of government statements and policies on crime, the outcomes of official reviews, and public expectations. Difficulties can be exacerbated in situations where the decision maker faces direct aggression or abuse, deals with highly-charged incidents or meets a lack of respect or cooperation from the community.
-Decision makers have legitimate constraints on the scope of their action to investigate crime and bring offenders to justice

A relevant consideration in assessing risk decisions is that the police must exercise their powers to control and prevent crime in a manner which fully respects the due process and other guarantees which legitimately place limitations on the actions they can take. Decision-making strategies that can be used in real-life, dynamic, high-stake situations may be significantly different from those that can be applied when the risk can be anticipated and controlled.

The quality of decision making can be affected by the amount of time available to make a risk decision. Dealing with an emergency, for example, (where action cannot be delayed to obtain more information or wait for assistance) places greater demands on a police decision maker than where there is time to plan ahead.

The shortage of harm-free options may also have a bearing on the quality of decision making. For example, in situations involving dilemmas, the decision maker is faced with choosing between solutions, all of which may lead to harm. In situations such as emergencies and dilemmas, officers are still required to act reasonably and professionally, but the normal standards of decision making cannot be expected and, in law, are not expected. The police service is not responsible for all forms of risk


Principle 6

The standard expected and required of members of the police service is that their risk decisions should be consistent with those a body of officers of similar rank, specialism or experience would have taken in the same circumstances.

Total agreement between all members of the police service on the most appropriate solution in a risk situation is neither possible nor required. People have different levels of experience, knowledge and skills that inevitably affect the decisions they make. Similarly, all those involved in a risk situation, whether creating it, attempting to resolve it, or merely observing it, will perceive it in different ways. Recognising these differences and taking them into account is crucial in judging risk decisions.

The objective is to create the conditions where risk-based decision making can flourish, ie, allow officers to identify and assess risks, and make balanced and proportionate decisions in response to them. Officers and staff will often feel that they lack the knowledge, skills or experience necessary for making particular risk decisions. That should not be considered a problem because policing involves such a diverse range of competencies. They should, provided it is safe to do so, refer the decision to someone who does have the appropriate knowledge and authority. If, of course, they or someone else might be harmed before that can occur, the police officer or staff member must act in that emergency to, at least, contain the threat. Many cases will involve, or require, a sequence of risk decisions. This has advantages because it is easier to predict likelihood and to contain what happens over short periods. Other decisions taken before a particular decision should always be taken into account when reviewing outcomes. A risk decision does not have to be one that even the majority of officers would make

The standard expected of police decision makers requires only that the risk decision was comparable to one that a similarly experienced body of the decision maker’s peers would have made in the same circumstances. Police forces can use policies, plans, guidelines, checklists and rules to help with decision making but none of these can cover every eventuality


Principle 7

Whether to record a decision is a risk decision in itself which should be left to professional judgement.

The decision whether or not to make a record, and the extent of that record, should be made after considering the likelihood of harm occurring and its seriousness. It is impossible to record all decisions

Recording a risk decision has numerous benefits, eg, it can help the decision maker work through the issues and demonstrate at a later point that various matters were rigorously considered. A need to record every single decision, however, would leave little or no time to do anything else. If harm occurs from a risk decision and an officer has contemporaneous documents to show that he or she did contemplate a list of possible benefits and/or did consider a possible outcome highly important and/or unlikely, he or she will be in a much better position in an inquiry or trial. Predicting which decisions will be scrutinised (whether because they went particularly well or catastrophically badly) is seldom possible. In some circumstances the need to record a decision is prescribed by statute. In other circumstances strategies, policies or local practices demand documentation or some other type of record and in others, deciding whether or not to record is left to the decision maker’s discretion.
Not all risk decisions need to be recorded

According to Sir Ronnie Flanagan (Review of Policing – Interim Report, 2007, p 8) ‘Distinction must be made between necessary and unnecessary bureaucracy and there must be greater discretion allowed for the exercise of professional judgement in making this distinction’. The term professional judgement refers to a finding, determination or decision that is consistent with the facts of the situation the professional goal, evidence-based practice, applicable laws, and the organisation’s values, policies and non-prescribed procedures.

Professional judgement requires that police officers have available, and can professionally apply, the most appropriate, accurate and up-to-date knowledge.


Principle 8

To reduce risk aversion and improve decision making, policing needs a culture that learns from successes as well as failures. Good risk taking should be identified, recognised and shared.

More valuable lessons can be learned from examples of successful decisions rather than from the much rarer ones that lead to loss or harm

  • Most risk decisions have successful outcomes, and experience shows that people learn more useful lessons from what works than from what does not work.
  • Rather than focus on poor decisions, therefore, (especially where harm has occurred) a risk management approach needs decision makers to have access to lessons learned and good practice.

If risk taking is to improve further, however, the police service needs to foster a culture that: helps decision makers and the organisation learn from experience
gives decision makers access to lessons learned from both good and poor practice, avoids finger pointing and blame and allows confidential reporting and discussion of near misses. Identifying and learning from successful and good risk decisions will help the police service move from a culture of risk aversion. here is a need to ensure that transferable lessons are learned and communicated to those who can benefit from them. As people learn more about risk, try things out and develop experience, a more positive and professional attitude to risk should take shape.


Principle 9

Since good risk taking depends on quality information, the police service will work with partner agencies and others to share relevant information about those who pose risk or those who are vulnerable to the risk of harm.

Sharing information about individuals between public authorities is essential to keeping people safe. Good quality information exchange and shared risk assessment and risk management planning between government agencies, non-government organisations, community groups and service providers is essential to managing risk effectively. This requires relevant agencies to work collaboratively in relation to people who pose a risk of harm to others, or are deemed to be at risk of harm.

Good risk management may involve briefing victims or potential victims (eg, where a woman does not know that her new partner has a history of domestic abuse) about risks that the police have reason to think they face so that they can take steps to protect themselves.
The anticipated benefits of effective information sharing can be summarised as:

-better decision making
-improved protection of individuals at risk
-reduction in crises through taking earlier effective action
-improved inter-agency working
-better profiling of individual need or risk
-more effective intervention, support and targeting of resources.

All information sharing must be conducted in accordance with a relevant legal power or duty

The principal legislative instruments that control the exchange of information in the fulfilment of public sector responsibilities are the:

-Data Protection Act 1998
-Human Rights Act 1998
-Freedom of Information Act 2000
-common law duty of confidence.

Numerous other statutes bestow a power or a duty on public authorities to share information in specific circumstances. If there is no other power then section 115 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 authorises disclosure of information – provided it is necessary or expedient for the purposes of that Act – to any ‘relevant authority’.

ACPO approved guidance on information sharing is contained in information management. It covers principles on the duty to obtain and manage information, the grading and recording of police information, the protection of sensitive information and sources, the sharing of information both inside and outside the police service, and the obligations of those receiving information from the police.

Information management requires forces to implement information sharing agreements (ISAs) as a means of facilitating confidence in the way information is shared. An ISA must cover: access and usage, necessity, recording, security, accuracy, accountability, authorisation and approval.

Information must always be accurate and confidential if public trust is to be deserved and maintained.

Principle 10

Members of the police service who make decisions consistent with these principles should receive the encouragement, approval and support of their organisation.