LONG BEACH, Calif. – Escalating allegations of excessive force by police officers, rising liability awards and increased concerns about police mental health are among the biggest risk management challenges for public sector risk managers, experts say.
The public is becoming more willing to complain about issues like police misconduct, said Holly Lerose, Hartford, Conn.-based assistant vice president, public sector claims, head of business practice, for Travelers Cos. Inc.
About 65% of claims against police departments are for excessive force and civil rights violations, she said during a session of the Public Risk Management Association’s annual conference last week in Long Beach, California.
Increased scrutiny after recent high-profile incidents has led to “an increased willingness to criticize police officers”; and an increase in citizens coming forward, she said.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in the severity of these claims in our book,” she said. Several years ago, $500,000 accounted for about 5% of the total but now accounts for more than 25% of claims, she said.
Staff retention was the focus of a session at the conference on navigating the changing landscape of law enforcement responsibilities. “We have staff reductions as a big issue,” said Dan Foster, Montgomery, Texas-based casualty control expert for Munich Re Specialty Insurance, a division of Munich Reinsurance Co.
The surge in layoffs that began two years ago resulted in a 40.4% reduction in the workforce, Foster said. While 2022 “remained fairly stable,” agencies are still dealing with deficits, prompting some to change their qualification standards, he said.
Some institutions may no longer require a bachelor’s degree or other educational qualification; will hire candidates with convictions for minor crimes or misdemeanors, such as use or possession of marijuana; or change physical ability and residency requirements, he said.
In light of the changes, departments should keep training up to date, have well-developed internal investigative procedures, consistent documentation and operate with transparency, he said.
“I honestly think it’s surprising that there are still agencies today” that are reluctant to use body cameras when they provide “some of the best defense we have,” he said.
In another session, Chester Darden, an associate with Franklin, Tenn.-based Public Entity Partners, said measures law enforcement should consider include more flexible work shifts.
“Every shift is a little different,” he said. The day shift, for example, might deal with fender-benders and some shoplifting, while the night shift “deals with some of the bad stuff,” like undercover assaults, he said.
Mental health is the biggest challenge for police, Darden said. If an officer says he’s struggling, “you have to have a culture of saying, ‘It’s OK, it’s not a sign of weakness, it’s not a sign of low testosterone to say, I’m not OK.'”
Departments also need to educate themselves more about police encounters with citizens with physical and mental disabilities, Sara Dearing, Chicago-based senior personal injury/litigation and coverage attorney for Genesis Management & Insurance Services Corp., said in another session.
Officers must adapt to specific situations, she said.
For example, when an officer stops a person who has a handicap placard on their car and asks that person to get out of the vehicle, he should anticipate that the person “may have to walk and reach for something to help them out of the vehicle.”