Monday, 20 July 2009

Risk Assessments are Risky

I read a post by PC Ellie Bloggs this morning and, as usual, she flagged up a very interesting topic about risk assessments, decision making stuff and the operational juggernaut that can often be unleashed as a result - something that happens pretty much daily, any town, anywhere. Read it here. It made me remember this one: I was sat at my desk pushing reports and files about, when I heard a call come in over the radio. Yes, I used to have a police radio on my desk as well as my kit belt hanging up ready to don, much to the suspicion of my superintendent in the next office who thought me a weirdo. I thought exactly the same about him, a man who thought that going out on patrol once a year, on New Year's Eve, would somehow endear him to his officers as a `policeman's policeman`. I had missed the first part of the radio traffic but the general gist of the call was that an armed response vehicle had been dispatched to my station on the authority of the force control room(FCR) inspector, a job I used to do. One of the higher authorities delegated to the FCR inspector was to be able to arm-up and deploy the ARV before asking the assistant chief constable `Ops`. Some of these inspectors were pretty good but most had never been trained in firearms or tactical options and you could hardly call a one hour lesson in a classroom on such matters `adequate preparation`. As a result, the timing and quality of their decisions was inconsistent. I went down to the front office and found the acting sergeant. She was a graduate entry high flyer who I had a lot of time for. She was highly intelligent, conscientious and very keen to learn the art of climbing the ladder quickly and had crammed quite a bit into her two and a half years of police service. She clearly had her hands and mind full and so I asked her to tell me all about it. It seemed that a MoP had just left the railway station and walked past a line of taxis. As she glimpsed into the last one on the rank, she thought she saw the driver holding a silvery handgun. Keeping her cool, she walked into the police station to report her sighting. She was a good witness, having memorised the cab company and the cab licence number. I asked the acting sergeant what she had done so far and she told me that the area control room had flagged the call to FCR as they were required to do (policy on serious incidents) and the FCR inspector had deployed the ARV and was notifying the assistant chief constable `ops` to ratify the decision. I asked her how she intended to resolve the incident and her reply was to find the cab and ask the ARV to do an armed stop on it. I suggested we explore other options that might not involve the ARV but she couldn't see what these might be. I contacted FCR and told them to keep the ARV coming but that this was now not an urgent call and to slow them down and turn off the blue lights. I told her that I would help her resolve this incident and asked her what intelligence she had on the taxi driver. She hadn't yet delegated anyone to work on that (a primary objective) so I told her to get onto it straight away. The inspector at FCR called me back. He was a guy I knew and he was happy to hear that I had been tuned in because he couldn't raise an inspector on our division to notify. I told him that I would take overall responsibility for it and to enter me on the message log accordingly. By now my acting sergeant had come back with some good info. The cab company was one of the good ones and, as luck would have it, one of our special constables worked there and was today's duty supervisor. I entrusted him with some of the information and of our need to speak to his driver but without raising any suspicions. Our special thought the driver may have had associates in the drug dealing fraternity but had no evidence, apart from that he had a clean sheet. Once again I spoke to the acting sergeant. She was quite adamant that an armed vehicle stop was the only option. I offered her my plan, which was based on the following facts: 1. We had no evidence linking the taxi driver to criminality, although we did know that some dealers used taxis and may have `tipped the drivers heavily` and anyway on this occasion there was no other reported suspcious activity 2. Our division had a very low crime rate with no heavy main dealers living in our midst. It wasn't `middle England blue rinse` territory but it wasn't sin city either - not that this is a reason to be careless 3. We knew his cab, we knew where he lived, we had a friendly contact in the taxi office and he was still on duty so we could put this taxi anywhere we pleased. Therefore, I suggested, we get the taxi duty supervisor (our special) to task him to attend the police station to `pick up a fare`, waiting in the front office. This was a typical call for taxis and would cause no suspicion. We deploy an officer to be casually waiting outside, near where the cabs always stop - again a typical sight for a cab driver to see. We watch him get out and, providing he doesn't get out with guns blazing (highly likely? I think not), we have a quiet word with him and search his cab. I explained to the acting sergeant that as long as you can see the suspect has empty hands then he can't shoot you. She was not too happy but I had relieved her of that decision and said that if she was unhappy to approach him, then I would gladly be the person who made the initial move as he parked up, such was my confidence in this plan. She relented, but I insisted I would be there as well -It was my plan, she was a bit windy, so I would take the lead. The ARV arrived and I told them I did not need an armed stop but that as they were there they could position themselves nearby. They were cool about the whole thing and knew me very well. I used to work alongside and, latterly, train these guys. The call was made to the cab concerned, it turned up in 5 minutes, the driver got out to collect his fare and was duly stopped and checked. His cab was checked and he produced a novelty cigarette lighter in the style of a small self loading pistol. I explained a little of the reception that could have greeted him and he immediately signed it over to me against a form of disclaimer. No high risk blue light run, no armed stop, no guns up someone's nose. The acting sergeants plan would have worked too and would have been quite legitimate. I did explain to her that had we been in certain other areas of some of our gun-prevalent cities then tactics could be different. This was about nine years ago. She's done well for herself. I think she's a detective superintendent now.


Anonymous said...

So many issues covered in one post. Phew!

I think one of the main criticisms levelled at police by the media and commentators is that often relatively trivial matters are dealt with in an OTT manner. Your story begins to show us why. If you have a set of rigid processes to go through which are written on the basis of arse-covering and worst-case scenarios then when a situation does not warrant such a hard-line response then there is bound to be criticism.

The acting sergeant was no doubt correct in her response according to the policies in place. But one of the bobby's main abilities is surely to smell a situation that isn't quite what it seems. In this case the background and local knowledge that you had suggested that it was unlikely to be such a serious situation, how come the acting sergeant couldn't put two and two together?

One thing which happens when there are so many procedures and processes and policies to follow is that people forget how to think for themselves and take their own responsibility for the outcomes they generate.

And what bloody good fortune to have a special in the right place at the right time! We are pretty damned good, aren't we?!


Intersting post about the decision making process. The sheer length of the post and the number of factors are mind-boggling.

Over here (big city Canada), the dispatcher would put the call out and a couple of cars would go to the taxi. We'd point our guns at the taxi driver and tell him to get out of the car. If gun was found he'd be arrested, if not he'd be free to leave.

The call itself, including the decision making (not including travelling time) would take about half an hour.

If the taxi driver was thought to have a really big gun or a hostage, we'd probably show up with a tactical unit, who also have really big guns and lots of them.

I can't really understand why, if you suspect someone's got a gun, you should be forced to simply hope for the best and rely on the perception of someone who isn't going to the call and therefore not going to be in harm's way.

Hogday said...

SC: I didn't mention the fact that the duty tactical adviser was being turned out as well!

DC: I agree that if we were doing it au Canadienne the situation would be as you stated. Having been out with the OPP and Detroit PD in the 80's I had personal experience of just that - and felt a whole lot safer than a lot of similar situations in the UK, as a result. The whole show, in this case, was over in about the time it took for the ARV to arrive (20 mins). In this case the ACC didn't authorise the ARV to do an armed stop, which I suspected would be the case having known him from my time in FCR, hence the need for an alternative to a straightforward armed challenge. He wouldn't take the word of an MoP based on a glance and would expect much more info. In 1999 the ARV crew didn't wear their weapons as most do now but had them (H&K 9mm MP5's) in the lockbox and could only self-arm in a life threatening emergency where there was no other course of action. Today, an ARV would most likely proceed as per your post as they tend to deploy with their handguns being worn rather than locked in the box, although I stand to be corrected on this and would be interested to hear from serving officers. I'll post up another case study in due course.

Blue Eyes said...

Celebrity commenters Mr H!

PC Bloggs said...

Thanks for the link.

Ref your story, I'm not sure I see the benefit of the background/intel approach as opposed to the armed stop. Your approach avoids a taxi driver having a gun pointed at him needlessly, but involves many minutes passing while these calls are made, in which time the taxi driver could make his drug deal or armed robbery or whatever he had the gun for. The armed stop is quick and perhaps should be used more often. If you really think the passer-by is likely to be wrong, why bother with the rigmarole and just send a regular PC to knock on the guy's window and ask him about it. Let's face it a licensed cabbie is unlikely to pull a gun on the police for no reason, especially if he knows you have his registration/cabbie number.

Blue Eyes said...

As an MOP I have to say that perception is a major factor here. Can you imagine the press reports of police doing an armed stop on a taxi driver with a novelty cigarette lighter??

Shades of the "rave" squad shutting down a 30th birthday BBQ with a handful of guests.

Hogday said...

PC Bloggs: Hi again Ellie and yes I see it totally from your perspective, but those were the constraints that we worked under, particularly with that ACC. In my time as an FCR inspector I would often take extra time to gather as much info as I could and construct my briefing very carefully in order to try and guarantee a "Yes" to ratify my decision to arm the ARV. I was in fact selling myself so that he trusted me to trust the ARV crews. It was a bit of a bizarre game at times, which I found ridiculous, pitting other peoples perceptions of a risk against those of a man 40 miles from the scene - and though I never had a decision of mine over ruled, it was still a ridiculous game. As a former tac firearms officer I was always of the mind to immediately `arm the car` at the suspicion of a deadly weapon, because apart from anything else I trusted the judgment of those firearms trained officers. There was a very real reluctance from the ACPO group to do so and to face the publicity, wrath and demands for compensation from an innocent MoP who'd had a police officer point a firearm at them - and I once dealt with a complaint just like that. As we frequently said, its easier for them to square up a dead police officer than a dead MoP.

Good point, also, about the MoP `likely to be wrong`, which was exactly the mind set of the ACC's who had to authorise the arming of the ARV. That was also part of my decision making process and had I been given that info on patrol nearby I would most likely have done exactly as you'd suggested, as these `gun sightings calls` were not infrequent. But the ARV had already been deployed (albeit with no authority to arm) and the `ante had been upped` as a result. Had this been a call from a distressed woman who had run from a violent domestic where her partner had pointed a `gun` at her... We were doing all this tiptoing about because our officers weren't armed and arming the ARV was in the hands of a chief officer. In a world where all the police are armed, this call was always a `doddle` from the word go as DC cited. The risk assessment would be devolved to the frontline officer. I worked hard to try and make the ARV either deployed armed or not deployed at all and I assume that is now very much the case. For most of my service I worked in the middle ground of fudgy indecision. Like I said I'll post another case study.


My problem with this scenario (not how it was dealt with) is that the people doing the stop seem to have no choice about the level of force they use.

Let's say you call all the people you need to and come to the conclusion that the taxi driver most likely isn't armed and you elect to send in an unarmed bobby to check it out. The conversation would go as follows:
"What we want you to do is have go and speak to this taxi driver. We've had a report he might have a gun, but we've made some calls and we don't believe he has."
"No problem sarge. Where will you be?"
"Right behind you son. About 5 miles behind you actually."
"So haven't we got any ARVs to speak to this cabbie just to be on the safe side?"
"We have, but we don't think they're really needed. As I say, we've made a few calls."

Now I'm 200% convinced that any police officer who does the job without a gun is completely insane. I know, I did it. I don't care about policy, or tradition or 'the criminal arms race' or perception, I want to keep my gun so that whenever the bosses send me to check out a cabbie, or a domestic or a robbery I've got a good chance of coming back.

I've still got 'common sense', 'local knowledge', 'intelligence' and a 'copper's nose' but I've also got a Glock 22 and 45 rounds of .40 if all else fails.

Blue Eyes said...

Don't most police officers in the States who get shot, get shot with their own weapon?

loveinvienna said...

Interesting post Hogday! Having read the other comments, I can appreciate why some people would see things differently but I have to say your approach is how I imagined the police would act in such a situation (but that is definitely no benchmark).
On the other hand, life can take you by surprise. Not 5 miles from where I live (definitely Blue rinse territory) there was a shooting – estranged ex-guardsman husband shot his wife’s new boyfriend outside their house.
This version doesn’t give the whole story as far as I’m aware (my Mum is friends with the lady’s sister). Apparently it was entirely premeditated – he was there in the early morning, waiting for them to get home and appeared from behind the garage as they pulled into the drive of her new house. The boyfriend saw him with the gun and reversed far too fast into a lamppost in an attempt to get away. The husband then walked across the road and shot him, seemingly in a very calculating manner (I mean, he had plenty of chances to change his mind).
But whatever the reasons behind it or the way it was carried out, just goes to show that you never can tell. The local police couldn’t believe it at first (this is the kind of place where an old lady’s hot water bottle bursting makes the front page of the local paper) but then sent a 2-man response car – all that our area has! Naturally, they were without any weapons beyond a bit of metal and a can of pepper. He went with them like a lamb, but that’s not the point...
Our area has now jumped up in the national gun crime statistics to somewhere near the top, merely because this is the first shooting here in, well... forever.

PS. Sorry, not sure how to do links!

Hogday said...

DC: I `carried` on firearms ops for much of my 30 years service, even as the C/I on certain CT jobs, when I was up close to the possible action. I have to say that when my pager went off for one of the hundreds of firearms jobs I did over the years, I'd always say to my wife, "Don't worry, all the dangerous stuff has already been done by the poor unarmed, untrained, unsupported buggers long before me and the boys get there". I guess that echo's what you've said in a way.

Hogday said...

LiV: Interesting tale. No such thing as a routine call - QED.