Risk management in small agency law enforcement operations

By Chief Jim Smith
Sleep and changing shifts
10 steps to improving your high-risk communication

Most police agencies have fewer than 15 officers, according Department of Justice data. This small number often translates into officers working alone or having to wait long periods for assistance. Officers working at small agencies also bear the brunt of long shifts and long hours on call. Fatigue and sleepiness are common issues that can wreak havoc the central nervous system.

Some agencies report a 60-hour week with additional on call time not uncommon. Smaller agencies may be exempt from portions of the Fair Labor Standards Act allowing longer shifts. Rural agencies are particularly affected as the small towns and counties may only have one or two officers covering a large geographic area.

The inability to have readily available backup means officers must alter their tactics. Risk-based behavior becomes necessary to protect officers.

  • Officers must use caution in dealing with multiple suspects and may have to delay approach to vehicle stops or calls where multiple suspects are involved.

  • Officers must be able to maximize verbal skills and be adept at communicating. Officers working alone may have to verbally convince suspects to surrender and make an arrest solo in low- or medium-risk circumstances. One may find backup is not available, or the officer finds a delayed arrest not feasible.

  • Officers must be proficient with protective tactics including defensive tactics, empty-handed defensive tactics and use of less lethal weapons. Staying physically fit is critical as the officer may have extended periods of struggle with a suspect with no assistance.

    Officers should carry a variety of less lethal alternatives. As a minimum the officer should have access to a conducted energy weapon such as a TASER, compatible OC spray, baton and a beanbag launcher. The officer when alone may need these intermediate force weapons to subdue a suspect.

  • Officer complacency is an issue as many officers in small agency settings will be familiar with offenders and may not treat those known as a substantial threat. The lowering of one’s guard due to familiarity with the suspect can have disastrous results.

  • Officers in rural areas deal with many individuals who are armed. Those living in rural areas tend to be independent, distrustful of government and usually possess and know how to use firearms, particularly long guns. The mindset is substantially different from many urban dwellers and officers must use a “gentler” approach in dealing with some rural dwellers who resent governmental authority.

  • Many rural agencies and small towns are havens for offenders. Convicted felons may select these areas to live within due to the lack of surveillance of their activities and the privacy afforded. Few small agencies have the resources to track probationers, convicted felons or sex offenders.

  • Officers must be proficient with firearms. Small agency officers should train more frequently with the issued firearms. In the rural and small town setting officers require a wider variety of firearms and plenty of ammunition. Some agencies issue the duty pistol with multiple high capacity magazines, a rifle such as an AR15, M16 or other medium caliber rifle, a shotgun and a large caliber long gun such as a 7.62 mm or .308 rifle. The officer should have access to multiple high capacity magazines for all weapons carried.

The important aspect is an integrated approach to the issue. The officers must recognize the shortcomings of operating solo, take steps to reduce risks and train more frequently and intensely. The problem arises when smaller agencies do not have the resources to provide the needed equipment and training. Officers have to make difficult decisions to allow potential suspects to escape or risk their safety in making an arrest.

Examples include a traffic stop where the officer suspects a drug violation but multiple suspects are present and backup is not available. In most cases the officer may reluctantly release the potential suspects to avoid a potentially high risk encounter alone.

Tools and firearms
I am a police chief in a small town where I answer most calls for service alone. We have elected to provide several enhancements to facilitate officer safety. Our video systems operate throughout the shift to document all activities and officers have access to an 800 MHz and UHF mobile and portable radios to afford communications to a regional dispatch center. Officers also carry a commercial specialized handheld radio as an alternative for communications using a voice and push to talk commercial network.

The officer also has access to less lethal weapons such as a TASER, baton, OC spray and well marked Remington 870 shotgun for launching beanbags. Officers are also issued a Benelli shotgun, AR15 or M16 and 7.62 caliber M14 rifle. The duty pistol is a Glock 17 and officers carry multiple magazines including a high capacity 32 round magazine. Our agency has answered several bank robberies with only one officer necessitating the officer has access to appropriate weapons. Officers train several times a year with the firearms and other weapons. The additional training strains the agency budget but working alone requires ongoing to training to stay proficient.

About the author
Jim Smith has more than 23 years public safety experience and currently serves as the police chief of a small town in southeast Alabama. Chief Smith has several degrees, including a Master of Science in safety. He has also authored several textbooks addressing law enforcement management, responding to bombings and WMD events. Chief Smith currently teaches graduate criminal justice classes for the University of Phoenix.

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