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Law enforcement liability concerns rise in changing environment


LONG BEACH, Calif. – Escalating claims alleging excessive force by police officers, rising liability awards and increased mental health concerns for officers are among the top risk management challenges for public entity risk managers, experts say.

The public is growing more willing to complain about issues such as police misconduct, said Holly Lerose, Hartford, Connecticut-based assistant vice president, public sector, claim business practice lead, for Travelers Cos. Inc.

About 65% of law enforcement-related claims arising from auto liability, employment practices liability and law enforcement liability involve allegations of excessive force or charge civil rights violations, she said during a session of the Public Risk Management Association’s annual conference last week in Long Beach, California.

Heightened scrutiny after recent high-profile incidents has led to “an increased willingness to criticize police officers” and a rise in citizens coming forward, she said.

“We have definitely seen an uptick in terms of severity of those claims within our book,” she said. Several years ago, the highest severity for law enforcement liability claims – those with a potential damage value of $500,000 or more, regardless of liability – accounted for about 5% of the total number but now account 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 liability. “We’ve got staff reductions as a huge issue,” said Dan Foster, Montgomery, Texas-based casualty loss control expert for Munich Re Specialty Insurance, a division of Munich Reinsurance Co.

The increased number of resignations that started two years ago, resulted in a 40.4% work force reduction, Mr. Foster said. While 2022 “stayed fairly stable,” agencies are “still dealing with deficits,” which has led some to change their qualification standards, he said. 

Some departments may no longer require a bachelor’s degree or other educational qualification; will employ candidates with convictions for petty crimes or misdemeanors, such as marijuana use or possession; 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 investigation procedures, consistent documentation and operate with transparency, he said.

“I honestly find it surprising that there are still agencies today” that are reluctant to use body cameras when they provide “some of the best defense that we have,” he said.

During another session, Chester Darden, an associate with Franklin, Tennessee-based Public Entity Partners, said measures law enforcement agencies should consider include more flexible work shifts.

“Each shift is a little bit different,” he said. The day shift, for example, may deal with fender benders and some shoplifting, while the night shifts are “dealing with some of the bad stuff,” such as domestic assaults, he said.

Mental health is the biggest challenge facing police departments, Mr. Darden said. If an officer says he is struggling “you’ve got to have a culture to say, ‘It’s OK, it’s not a sign of weakness, it’s not a sign of low testosterone to say, I’m not okay.’”

Departments also need to do more training on police encounters with citizens with physical and mental disabilities, said Sara Dearing, Chicago-based senior claims attorney/claim litigation and coverage, for Genesis Management & Insurance Services Corp., during another session.

Police officers must adapt to specific situations, she said.

For example, when a police officer pulls over an individual who has a handicap plate on the car and asks that individual to get out of the vehicle, he should anticipate that the person “may need to go and reach for something to assist them out of the car.”