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Workplace Violence: A Police Concern

Millions of Americans report being the victim of workplace violence each year in the United States. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), incidents of workplace violence have reached epic proportions, reaching nearly two million reported incidents annually (U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA], 2002). Although the total number of workplace violence incidents that are reported annually is staggering, only a very small percentage of those incidents end up in serious injury or death. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (Rugala & Isaacs, 2002) reports that shocking workplace homicides or multiple homicides actually represent a very small number of reported workplace violence incidents. In fact, the majority of workplace violence incidents that most organizations and employees have to deal with on a daily basis are lesser cases of assaults, domestic violence, stalking, threats, harassment, sexual harassment and physical and/or emotional abuse that never make the headlines (Rugala & Isaacs, 2002).

Workplace violence is one of many crisis situations that police officers respond to that not only have risks inherent for the responding officers and individuals caught in the dynamics of the crisis itself but for the innocent bystanders that are drawn into the scenario through the pure misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. No matter how diligently police personnel train in coordinating their response and controlling their actions to minimize the risk of harm to innocent individuals, quickly evolving and dynamic situations always seem to attract collateral damage and subsequent media scrutiny. Regardless of the extent of training, planning, and care that a police organization can employ to keep innocent bystanders safe, there are certain unforeseen system accidents, or failures, that make catastrophic events either worse or harder to diagnose (Perrow, 1999).

In his book, Charles Perrow (1999), posits that in any tightly coupled system with high interactive complexity will inevitably have Normal Accidents. Normal accidents are defined as accidents that are extremely rare, but that is, in fact, normal, that are created by certain system failures or failures resulting from specific interactions or transformation processes. These interactions can either be tightly coupled, meaning there is a direct and immediate connection and interaction between components or they can be loosely coupled, meaning there is some sort of slack or buffering between components (Perrow, 1999). Additionally, the interactions and transformation process can be linear or complex. Linear having orderly, easily isolated components and step by step processes that only interact with adjacent steps or complex interactions that have many connections and interrelationships (Perrow, 1999).

Although in Perrow’s theory of Normal Accidents (1999), he focuses largely on technological systems in high-risk industries that are tightly coupled with the complexities of the human-machine, his theory can be applied to societal system and how accidents can be a result of the multiple failures design, equipment, procedures, operators, supplies, and the environment. One such accident is when nine bystanders were wounded after being hit by gunfire from members of the New York City police department on August 24, 2012 (Oh, 2012). An accidental police shooting of bystanders on a crowded city street is an example of how the tightly coupled complexities of the human-machine and multiple failures of procedures, operators and the environment can result in a system failure or Normal Accident.

On August 24, 2012, Steven Ercolino, the vice-president of a New York-based import company was gunned down outside of his business. The suspect, a disgruntled former co-worker named Jeffrey Johnson, was previously a designer of women’s accessories for Ercolino’s company and had been laid off a year earlier as a result of downsizing (FOX, 2012). Immediately after Johnson shot and killed Ercolino on a busy New York sidewalk, he fled the area on foot. The shooting was witnessed by a construction worker, who then followed Johnson until he was able to alert two police officers of what Johnson had done (Prokupecz, Dienst, & Cheng, 2012). As Johnson walked near the entrance to the Empire State Building he was confronted by two New York City police officers. Johnson immediately drew a .45 caliber handgun, and while pointing it at the officers, was shot and killed by officers in response to the threat (Deprez, Goldman, & Varghese, 2012). As a result of the shooting, nine bystanders were inadvertently wounded, six from gunshot wounds and three from fragments caused by ricocheting bullets (Ariosto, 2012).

Police officers routinely train for these types of incidents where an otherwise innocuous-looking individual suddenly presents himself/herself as an immediate threat to either the officers themselves or the general public. However, it is impossible to train for every possible scenario due to the inherent complexities of people and their ability to think, reason and make decisions that are not always predictable. As Perrow (1999) stated, normal accidents arise from an incident or series of incidents or localized failures that then expand to disrupt or damage the larger system. An incident such as an active shooter is interactively complex and tightly coupled with environmental dynamics that in many instances leaves insufficient time and understanding to effectively control the incident and avoid accidents.

In a public setting, random bystanders create interactive complexity through their mere presence and through the fact that their decision-making during a time of crisis may be erratic, unfamiliar or unplanned and can result in an unexpected sequence of events in a system that are either not visible or not immediately comprehensible (Marais, Dulac, & Levenson, 2004). Bystanders may decide to assist in the apprehension of the actor, do nothing but stand there, or flee from their perceived danger, only to run directly into the path of the drama that is unfolding. Public active shooter events are tightly coupled events that are highly interdependent, yet tightly linked to many other parts operating within the environment and therefore a change in one part can rapidly affect the status of other parts. These tightly coupled events respond quickly to perturbations, but not unlike this event, the results may be disastrous (Marais et al., 2004).

The actor himself is another essential part of the equation. Police officers train constantly using ever-changing scenarios to confront a deadly threat and hone their crisis decision-making skills. There rarely are two real-life scenarios that are ever alike. Some may be strikingly similar, but ultimately the differences in human decision-making can cause a cascading effect that can cause what started out as a routine event, to spiral horribly out of control very quickly, before officers are able to assess the situation and take the appropriate corrective action (Marais et al., 2004). The decision of an actor to draw a weapon and take his own life or to turn that weapon on innocent bystanders or responding officers can occur within fractions of a second. In such systems, what begins as an apparently trivial incident can cascade in unpredictable ways and with possibly severe consequences (Marais et al., 2004).

The police officer’s shooting skill is also a contributing factor to system failure. Most law enforcement agencies qualify with their weapons on an annual basis. However, budgetary constraints tend to limit the amount of ammunition allotted to each officer and the training time dedicated to effective firearms training. That leaves officers on their own to hone their skills in one of the highest liability areas in the realm of public safety, the use of deadly force. Perrow (1999) posits that one of the most effective ways to eliminate hazards and reduce failures is to implement redundancy in the system. In this scenario, the most effective redundancy would not be having multiple officers firing at one offender, but to have a well trained and proficient firearms expert placing accurate and effective shots on target. The problem for police administrators boils down to tradeoffs and determining how much risk is acceptable in order to achieve safety and reduce the risk of failure (Marais et al., 2004). However, to the extent that training for these types of incidents can be made safer by the elimination of human error, it will never eliminate the chance for the occurrence of a normal accident simply because of the interactive complexity of this type of tightly coupled scenario.

Workplace violence, active shooter incidents and other rapidly evolving and dynamic events will continue to present themselves within our society. The analogy that safety defenses are like slices of Swiss cheese is exactly how Normal Accident Theory would describe the chances of a system failure occurring in an interactively complex and tightly coupled scenario. No matter how high you stack the slices it is inevitable that organizational movement will cause a set of holes to line up eventually and safety defenses will be compromised (Reason, 1997; Cooke & Rohleder, 2006).





Ariosto, D. (2012). 2 dead, 9 wounded in Empire State Building shootings, police say. Retrieved from

Cooke, D. L., & Rohleder, T. R. (2006, Fall). Learning from incidents: from normal accidents to high reliability. System Dynamics Review, 22(3), 213-239.

Deprez, E. E., Goldman, H., & Varghese, R. (2012). Man slain after shooting ex-colleague near Empire State. Retrieved from

FOX (2012).

Marais, K., Dulac, N., & Levenson, N. (2004). Beyond normal accidents and high reliability organizations: The need for an alternative approach to safety in complex systems [White paper]. MIT: Author.

Oh, I. (2012, August 24,). Mayor Bloomberg addresses Empire State Building shooting, Ray Kelly IDs shooter as Jeffrey Johnson. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Oh, I. (2012, August 25,). NYPD gunfire in Empire State Building shooting wounded all nine bystanders, says Ray Kelly. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Perrow, C. (1999). Normal Accidents: Living with high-risk technologies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Prokupecz, S., Dienst, J., & Cheng, P. (2012). Empire State shooting: Bystanders hit by police rounds. Retrieved from

Reason, J. (1997). Managing the risks of organizational accidents. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing.

Rugala, E. A., & Isaacs, A. R. (Eds.). (2002). Workplace violence: Issues in response. Federal Bureau of Investigation Critical Incident Response Group. Quantico, VA: National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.

The National Center for Victims of Crime. (n.d.).

U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (2002). OSHA fact sheet. Retrieved from



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Are “De-escalation” Policies Escalating Line of Duty Deaths?

The authority of the police to use “reasonable and necessary” force to effect arrest has been not only one of the most debated powers granted to police, but most likely one of the most misunderstood as well. The term “reasonable and necessary” force is based on the ambiguous “reasonable person” standard. At best, it leaves the police in a perilous conundrum of trying to find that “reasonable person”, and in the blink of an eye, determine how that person would apply the use of force in separate, widely varying and quickly evolving incidents. The lack of a clear, definitive definition has left the police scrambling for ways to defend themselves and protect the public without the nagging fear that their actions will result in claims of excessive force and career-ending litigation.

Enter the regeneration of “de-escalation.” The notion of “de-escalation” is not a new phenomenon and has been, in one way or another, part of every use of force continuum for decades.   Finding ways to slow down the scenario, provide officers with less-than-lethal alternatives and reduce the need for the use of deadly force have been commonplace in most use of force policies. Use of force begins with the mere presence of an officer and can be escalated through verbal or visual commands, soft empty-hand control techniques, hard empty-hand control techniques, intermediate weapons (pepper spray, electro-muscular disruption devices), impact weapons, and concluding with deadly force, if necessary. However, even with this wide continuum of force options, the standard of the “reasonable person” remains on a wildly swinging pendulum that is subjectively and inconsistently applied.

The outcry for a nationwide de-escalation policy has brought police use of force under further scrutiny, the inference being, government on a national level replacing local use of force governance historically implemented by local law enforcement. This poses a question of effectiveness, efficiency, and accountability. Expecting an already overburdened, understaffed and inefficient federal government to judiciously administer, scrutinize and enforce local law enforcement use of force policies and incidents is unreasonable, especially to a reasonable person.

Studies have shown that agencies without de-escalation policies experience a much lower officer mortality rate than those agencies with de-escalation polices in effect. De-escalation can work, just not in every incident. Individuals experiencing mental illness, those under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol or those with predisposed tendencies for violence usually are not the most rational people to deal with. In those incidents, de-escalation policies may be ineffective based on the actor’s irrationality and inability to cooperate. In the majority of use of force incidents, if the actor would just do as the officer requests, excessive force would never even be a consideration. Still, use of force protocols cannot be abandoned. Officers are placed in situations in which they cannot retreat, and a use of force incident can arise, causing the officer to make a split-second decision based on his or her training, experience, the law, and department policy. The threat of disciplinary action, negative media attention, frivolous litigation and loss of livelihood further muddle the decision-making process, confusing officers and causing them to pause in moments where life or death decisions need to be made.

There is no panacea for this problem. We must continue to work as a society to help the police help us. This will require giving the police less ambiguous laws and unrealistic policies that will allow them to make clear-cut decisions without the fear of being held to a standard that is ever-changing.



Alpert, G. and Smith, W. (1994). “How Reasonable Is The Reasonable Man.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology: Vol. 85/2, 481–501.


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The Contribution of Research to Policing

For decade’s police organizations throughout the United States and some to some extent even today, have failed to fully embrace academia and their attempts to provide options to criminal justice dilemmas through the use of empirical and scholarly research.  One of the guiding principles of this thought process was the notion that those in academia, merely sat perched in their sterile environments theorizing about how crime could be addressed in a perfect world, and did not really understand the true idiosyncratic complexities challenging officers on the street. Additionally, law enforcement officers and administrators alike, knew that quality research of any kind takes time.  Practitioners were faced with dilemmas in real time and did not have time to wait for researchers to conduct research, compile data, analyze it and publish their results.  Additionally, academics tend to believe that what has been researched and proven scientifically will automatically work, and if not, that practitioners are ignoring research and failing to implement it.  The fact is that many practitioners welcome the research provided by academia.  Unfortunately, the criminal justice system is multi-faceted and there are many agencies, individuals and personalities that must all come together in a “ideological perfect storm” and agree to implement research findings in a collaborative manner.  In any event, the process could literally take years and most police chiefs are appointed annually. So, the inability of researchers to present viable options to real-time crime issues in real-time, and the ability for that perfect storm to form, ultimately proves to be a career ender for many police chiefs who had no alternatives at their disposal.

The facts remain that the police have a difficult and wide-ranging set of ambiguous issues facing them; researching those issues accurately and scientifically is very time consuming; and, unfortunately, even if research results were available immediately, police departments, in general, have had a history of being highly resistant to change and hesitant to implement new programs.  However, great strides have been taken over the past two decades, to close the gap between how the police perceive research and being able to recognize the value that research can bring to the police operation.  Police departments have become more receptive to research-driven innovations to address crime and have begun to regularly collaborate with researchers in an attempt to become more focused in their research efforts.

Breaking the barriers to research has proven to be effective in many ways.  Research has been able to contribute to police work by providing answers to age-old dilemmas.  Analyzing police data has allowed researchers to theorize and suggest critical innovations in the way the police should go about the business of policing.  Innovations such as Compstat, hot spot policing, problem-oriented, community policing and evidence-based policing represent just a few. Utilizing these concepts in conjunction with one another will allow the police to refine their crime control strategies and improve their performance.

It would be incredulous to assume that research is the panacea that will solve all of the problems facing the police.  Quality of life issues change, and with them change the strategies that the police will need to use to address those issues. As such, society will continue to set the priorities for the police and the police will need to rearrange their goals and strategies to meet those needs.  Additionally, police researchers will never be lacking for topics to research, and currently, only the surface has been scratched.  Martin Innes (2010), in his article, asserts that there are four sets of relationship in which police research arises, research by the police, research on the police, research for the police and research with the police.  Now that police administrators have begun to accept research as a viable alternative providing solutions that work, it is imperative that the collaboration between researchers, the police and all government partners remain constant and strong, or policing will lose the toehold they currently have, making it even more difficult to gain ground in the future.

The ability to harness fact-based knowledge that can directly impact the effectiveness of police in addressing societal challenges is a rich investment in the stabilization of our communities.  Research provides the catalyst for innovation and increases the value of policing in our society.



Innes, M. (2013). “A ‘Mirror’ and a ‘Motor’: Researching and Reforming Policing in an Age of Austerity.” Policing: 127–134.


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How Do Police Behaviors Affect Public Opinion And Why Should That Matter?

Many would say that public opinion is in the eye of the beholder.  In most cases, it is, as some might believe that the perception of how the police behave when they make contact with a citizen is largely a subjective account of how that particular citizen felt that particular day, towards that particular officer, during that particular contact.  Others perceive that the police behave poorly on almost all occasions, especially whenever a minority is involved, particularly an African-American individual.  Skogen (2006) identifies this perception as the “collective insecurity” of African-Americans, positing that the statistical effect of dissatisfaction by race disappears when controlling for perceived levels of crime and disorder.

Numerous studies have been conducted examining public opinion against the attitudes and behavior of the police.  According to Skogen (2006), all research on American’s views of the police begins with race.  As with most studies, some find overwhelming evidence that the police are disproportionately stopping, questioning, mistreating and arresting young, poor, minority males.  Other studies provide mixed results, especially when comparing the socioeconomic status of the person contacted to satisfaction.  Skogen (2006) asserts that many middle-class African-Americans are more attuned to racial discrimination believing it to be an abstract concept that impedes their class-based aspirations. Brown and Benedict (2002) assert that confidence in the police is higher for higher status whites, yet lower for higher status African-Americans.

The concept that seems to surface and resonate in all the studies is that people who are contacted by the police are by and large dissatisfied with the attitude and behavior of the police, whether it be a citizen requested contact or a police-initiated contact.  Why are the police viewed so unfavorably in so many instances?  Are the police really behaving badly in the majority of their contacts with citizens or have we come to expect too much from fellow human beings who we as a society have forced onto a pedestal of higher expectations that simply cannot be met in some instances?  To me, they are important questions to answer.  Police derive their legitimacy by striving to be just that; being those in society who do rise a level above the rest, to instill confidence in society that the police are competent and efficient in protecting the public and that they can do so without the suggestion that they lack procedural fairness, are discriminatory, intimidating, brutal and lacking responsiveness to the concerns of those they are sworn to protect.

What doesn’t help is the current media trend of spinning half-truths based in one-sided conjecture and negative innuendo, designed to sensationalize a story, and further erode the legitimacy and confidence that the public has for the police. Sadly, it has become more popular to vilify the police and aggrandize the perpetrator.  The result of this phenomenon is the creation of a self-fulfilling prophecy, which causes many honest, virtuous, incorruptible officers to flee the perlustration and constant media assault of public service, to take a less provocative career path.

It boils down to the theoretical frameworks mentioned by Van Craen (2012).  In order to maintain legitimacy and solidify a basis for people to build their level of confidence and trust in the police, they must embrace and employ the concepts of Social Capital Theory, Performance Theory and Procedural Justice.  Proactively and aggressively pursuing criminal activity through evidence-based and focused patrol is only part of the larger puzzle.  For policing to be successful there must be a fair and accurate portrayal of law enforcement by the media, as well as, the added components of making connections with citizens through civic engagement, building confidence by meeting citizen’s expectations by maintaining accountability by meeting performance expectations and through the consistent, fair treatment, of everyone, and through respect and responsiveness to the concerns and priorities of citizens.



Brown, B., & Benedict, W. (2002). Perceptions of the police: Past findings, methodological issues, conceptual issues and policy implications. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 25(3), 543-580.

Skogen, W.G., (2006). Asymmetry in the Impact of Encounters with Police. Policing and Society, 16(2), 99-126.

Van Craen, M. (2012). Determinants of Ethnic Minority Confidence in the Police. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 38 (7), 1029-1047.


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