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Risk Management and 21st Century Policing: Protecting Communities and their Financial Integrity

Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Baer delivered remarks at the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services’ (COPS Office) Risk Management Forum yesterday in Washington, D.C.  This blog post is based on the remarks he delivered at the forum.

Yesterday afternoon, I had the privilege of joining Director Ron Davis of the Justice Department’s COPS Office at their Risk Management Forum in Washington, D.C.  The department is so fortunate to have Ron – a true problem solver with a distinguished law enforcement background – as a leader.  During some of the tensest situations in law enforcement community relations – from Ferguson to Baltimore to Standing Rock – whether in the spotlight or in the background, Ron has been there working to find peaceful solutions and promoting the forward-looking work of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

We all know the great responsibilities borne by our nation’s police officers: they stand on the front lines of some of the most difficult battles in our communities; they see danger and run towards it; and they make split-second decisions with long-lasting consequences.  In 2014, President Obama took the initiative to create the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing to help identify best practices and to offer recommendations on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.

The task force included law enforcement representatives, community leaders, young adults and notable scholars, who engaged in myriad ways with local, county and state officials; subject matter experts; community advocates; faith, community and youth leaders; and representatives of nongovernmental organizations.  The task force recognized that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution: what works in one community may not work in another.  But the Task Force’s Recommendations represent a philosophy of policing that is backed up by expertise and that we have seen works in the field.  In the 18 months since the task force delivered its report to the president, we have seen firsthand that when police departments embrace the recommendations of the task force, they forge better relationships with the communities and keep their officers safe. 

From my vantage point in the Office of the Associate Attorney General, I know that issues can be viewed through many lenses.  Law enforcement is a great example of how a whole-of-government approach makes a difference.  Indeed, our work at the department combines the efforts of the COPS Office, where we support law enforcement agencies and communities to collaborate and build trust; the Office of Justice Programs, where we provide knowledge and funding to facilitate state-of-the-art crime fighting practices; the Civil Rights Division, where we use enforcement tools to ensure that agents and officers perform their jobs fairly and justly; and the Civil Division, where we defend federal law enforcement agencies and agents in litigation. 

The COPS Office put together this forum to discuss the critical relationship between risk reduction efforts and the task force recommendations.  Risk management is a way of reminding ourselves that uncertainty and crises should not deflect us from our goals.  As Warren Buffet once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.  If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”  We aren’t running a traditional business, but we sure don’t want uncertainty or failures of public trust to deflect from our public safety goals.  And risk management is a way of thinking about the fact that good policing practices are not just good for communities but also good for state, local and tribal governments’ bottom lines.  Proactive community policing strategies don’t just stop crime; they prevent crime.  They don’t just enable police to enforce the law; they also enable communities to prevent lawbreaking and to enlist the aid of police.  This is also true when thinking about the bottom line: the most successful litigation defense is not to have been sued in the first place, and when one is sued, it helps a great deal when law enforcement efforts are guided by evidence-based best practices.      

The task force recommendations enable us to fight crime, save lives and represent a commitment to our communities, but they are also good tools for reducing risk.  The recommendations state: “Any prevention strategy that unintentionally violates civil rights, compromises police legitimacy or undermines trust is counterproductive from both ethical and cost-benefit perspectives.  Ignoring these considerations can have both financial costs (e.g., lawsuits) and social costs (e.g., loss of public support).”  To put this in risk-management terms, from the perspective of a defense lawyer, insurance company or local administrator, law enforcement agencies that are embracing community policing and the task force recommendations are, we believe, protecting your communities and their financial integrity. 

When you think about officer-involved shootings, or critical incidents, or officer safety and wellness, and then you think about the financial costs associated with these incidents, it makes perfect sense that yesterday’s forum is needed to discuss these concepts.  If you all can encourage others to think as you all have and to consider the human costs and financial costs associated with these incidents, it makes the argument for community policing all the more compelling.

As we think about the transition ahead, it is important to note that the challenges we all face are not going to change.  It’s also important to remember that there are models for improving relationships between communities and local police; strategies for addressing tension and promoting peaceful outcomes; and proven methods for reducing the risk of escalating violence and reducing the exposure of law enforcement and local governments when problems do occur.  And those tools will remain, and the federal government’s commitment to work with law enforcement agencies on these challenges will endure.  I am confident of that and I hope that forums like yesterday’s will continue across all sectors of government.

Updated March 3, 2017