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LOS ANGELES -- Overstay your sentence at the Los Angeles County jail due to a clerical error and investigators from the Civil Litigation Unit of the Sheriff's Risk Management Bureau will be waiting when you are released.

Agree not to sue and they will cut a check. The amount may not be huge by a successfully employed professional's yardstick -- especially for having spent extra time in a dangerous, overcrowded prison system that typically houses 21,000 people each day -- but it works for many just-released inmates.

In 1997, the Risk Management Bureau paid out almost $200,000 to 548 inmates who were incarcerated an average of 6.7 days beyond their sentences. The bureau also recommended hiring additional staff to ease clerical problems that resulted in delayed releases.

Cutting the checks is a good risk management practice that has been upheld by a state Superior Court and has diminished the potential for lawsuits, said Capt. Lee McCown, supervisor of the Sheriff's Risk Management Bureau.

It's not a tactic taught in risk management courses, but there really aren't any formal courses for law enforcement risk management personnel. Traditionally, across the country, there has been very little risk management influence on policing and few training materials for introducing the concept.

Few law enforcement agencies nationwide have their own internal risk management departments, said Edward Farrell, risk management director for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, whose department is an exception. Most law enforcement agencies receive risk management advice from civilian city or county administrators, he said.

But that is starting to change. Pressure from public insurance pools to stem losses, a newer guard of better-educated police administrators due to federal funding for college tuition, and increased media and public scrutiny are all adding to the discussion of risk management among police and their associations.

"What seems to be happening is agencies that have the resources to send people to national conferences, trainers' conferences and chiefs' conferences are getting more and more exposed to the idea," said Steven Ashley, loss control manager and director of law enforcement risk control for Meadowbrook Insurance Co. in Southfield, Mich.

Police agencies that practice risk management are combating losses peculiar to their profession, such as those stemming from police officers who raid the wrong residences or apply excessive force. They also are reducing losses more familiar to private-sector risk managers, such as workers compensation claims -- albeit in a sometimes unusual environment.

One obstacle to implementing risk management programs has been law enforcement's traditional focus on apprehending criminals while ignoring financial losses.

"Police chiefs never bleed when there is a loss," said Pat Gallagher, a risk management consultant to police for The Gallagher-Westfall Group in Indian Valley, Va. "In many cases, they just turn it over to the (insurance) pool, or they turn it over to their insurance agent. Maybe they are deposed, and they are ticked off at the settlement. But it never really affects them, and I think that is one of the reasons why they don't see the need to do a lot more proactively."

But some agencies, particularly larger ones such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, are making the issue a top priority by funding risk management operations within the law enforcement department.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has approximately 9,000 sworn personnel and 3,000 civilian employees who provide police services for several cities and unincorporated areas in the county, operate the jail system and provide security for several courthouses.

Staggering liability losses, leadership by an elected sheriff and budget necessities all have influenced the department to make risk management a priority.

A department Risk Management Bureau, which now has 70 members, was formed in 1995. It has developed and implemented several new programs and policies and has refined others whose oversight was previously scattered throughout the department.

In 1996, the Sheriff's Department received a first-place award from the Public Risk Management Assn. in Arlington, Va., for "Outstanding Achievement for a Public Risk Management Program."

Risk management efforts are aimed at demanding that the department's leaders and deputies adhere to more professional standards, Capt. McCown said. "We looked to see how we could improve not only our performance but also to make sure that we were not losing money in litigation that we shouldn't."

Deputies and supervisors are now more closely monitored through statistical compilation of incidents, such as public discourtesy complaints, preventable auto collisions and use of force.

One measure of success is the amount paid out in judgments and settlements. In the 1991 fiscal year, the department paid out $26.2 million; in fiscal 1996/97, the figure had dropped to $12.5 million.

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department has borrowed common risk management techniques such as return-to-work practices from private industry, said Capt. McCown, a 30-year veteran of the department who also holds a master's degree in public administration. Yet the sheriff's risk managers confront concerns -- with their own ironies -- not faced by the private sector.

For example, budget cuts have closed many California mental institutions, making the Los Angeles County jail system a warehouse for the mentally ill, some of whom can be dangerous to work with, Capt. McCown said. There is also the usual array of felons who, though incarcerated, are able to fashion crudely made jail knives and other weapons.

But the daily processing of thousands of inmates, many of them in poor health or lacking hygiene, makes communicable diseases a bigger cause of workers comp losses than violent inmates, Capt. McCown said. "We lose a lot of time because of conjunctivitis," he explained. "That isn't inmates jumping on deputies and beating on them. There are sprains and twists and things like that. We don't have a whole lot of stabbings."

There are also large, high-profile losses. In May, a California Appellate Court upheld a $23 million verdict against the Sheriff's Department, stemming from accusations that deputies beat several plaintiffs attending a bridal shower.

The Sheriff's Department is appealing the ruling to the California Supreme Court concerning the event, which took place in 1989, before the Risk Management Bureau was formed, Capt. McCown said.

Would it be less likely for that to happen now?

"Certainly," Capt. McCown said. "The ultimate compliment for us is (that) the plaintiffs bar, the attorneys that sue the department, have looked at us, and we are getting fewer and fewer suits from them."

Risk management policies and reforms, such as use of force reviews, have helped the Sheriff's Department win 11 of 12 recent court cases. "The things they used to be able to attack us on are not available any more. So they are going out and looking at other law enforcement agencies," Capt. McCown said.

A thick manual now serves as a cornerstone for the department's broad risk management policy (see related story). The manual offers a look at how the department has implemented top-down accountability for loss prevention and risk management. Commanders and captains are held accountable for losses attributed to their underlings. The sheriff's upper management draws on statistics compiled by the Risk Management Bureau on incidents such as work-related injuries and car chases to pre-empt budding problems.

Peer pressure and upper management's ability to deny rank advancements to captains and other supervisors are a means to gain their cooperation. "We do not have stockholders because we are civil servants," Capt. McCown said. "But it will be noticed by everyone who makes the decisions if you are doing a good job. Before, it wasn't noticed because we are so large."

Effective risk management in law enforcement takes an insider to do the job well, Capt. McCown said. Risk managers from outside the police department often will be viewed with suspicion and hamstrung. To put it bluntly, he said, cops are just too difficult to work with.

"It's not going to work unless you get cops involved, because law enforcement is a closed shop," Capt. McCown said. "They don't have a lot of trust for, a., attorneys and, b., non-sworn members."

One preventive risk management measure that more law enforcement risk managers nationwide are striving for is quick claim settlement, before claimants have time to consult plaintiffs attorneys and escalate costs. Such is the case with the sheriff's risk manager staff who settle immediately with inmates held too long in the county jail.

Jeffrey Jinkens, acting risk manager for Broward County Sheriff's Department in Florida, said his risk management department is on call 24 hours a day for a variety of incidents that may call for a relatively quick settlement. If the facts and circumstances call for it, he has the authority to cut a check for tens of thousands of dollars.

"I'm not saying I would ever use it," he said. "In the perfect situation, if you were able to determine without a doubt that 100% of the responsibility rests with you, would it be a smart thing to settle that claim on the spot? Yes, it would."