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INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC SAFETY ASSOCIATION
Together we are stronger

Is CRM a useful tool for law enforcement? Other industries are effectively using it for high-risk situations

27 May 2021 10:46 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Gregory L. Walterhouse, Associate Teaching Professor, Bowling Green State University, IPSA Board Member

Over the past year there have been calls for rethinking and reimagining policing in the United States. There have been calls for defunding thus de-staffing of law enforcement agencies, decriminalization of various offenses and completely abolishing police departments.

Unintended outcomes in law enforcement are often associated with human error, which is inevitable and is the difference between a desired or planned state and actual state. Since human error will occur countermeasures are necessary and Crew Resource Management (CRM) can provide such a countermeasure by helping to avoid errors, trapping errors when they do occur and mitigating the consequences of errors that are not trapped. 

What is CRM?

In short, CRM is a decision-making model for high-risk situations. CRM is a management system using all means available including equipment and personnel to improve safety.

  • The first step is to recognize that a problem exists.
  • Second, is to define the problem.
  • Third, identify possible solutions to the problem.
  • Fourth, take appropriate action to implement a solution.

The overarching goal of CRM is to identify human error and make necessary corrections before the error results in an accident. Some of the skills associated with CRM include coordinated two-way communication, decision-making, shared situational awareness, workload management, leadership and teamwork. The objective of CRM is to improve safety through training to optimize performance and the use of the team concept.

History

Due to increasing commercial aircraft complexity, and the rising number of accidents, most the result of human error, CRM was developed in 1980 in the airline industry. CRM was initially designed for flight crews, but eventually included flight attendants and air traffic controllers. At least one study found that joint CRM training sessions comprising both flight attendants and pilots together, increased positive teamwork behaviors, and broke down communication barriers in finding solutions to in-flight emergency scenarios. CRM has since been used in a number of industries including in maritime, railroads, health care including surgical and anesthesiology teams, the military, helicopter air ambulance operations, dentistry, pharmacy and firefighting.

Does CRM work?

As to the efficacy of CRM, one study found that in the health care industry, CRM resulted in a return on investment of between $9.1 and $24.4 million from avoidable patient safety events.

Another study found that surgical outcomes and safety culture improved after CRM was implemented in a pediatric surgical department. After CRM was implement in a hospital intensive care unit, a three year study found a significant reduction in serious complications and lower mortality in critically ill patients.

An additional study from health care found that CRM training of trauma resuscitation staff, resulted in improved behavior and communication, resulting in enhanced patient safety and by inference reduction of errors.

The United States Coast Guard reports a 74 percent reduction in injuries since implementing CRM.

From the fire service a series of workshops found that CRM was a worthy model to pursue for wildland firefighting.

Finally, a specific success story from aviation is the successful landing of U.S. Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River which Captain Sullenberger attributed to both his experience and CRM training.

Law enforcement application

Law enforcement officers are called upon to continually make decisions. Often these decisions are high-risk, and must be made in complex high-stress situations. There are also instances where it is alleged that officers fail to intervene when a fellow officer allegedly violates a victim's Constitutional rights including the use of excessive force. It’s in these types of situations, and others, where CRM could help avoid or trap errors thereby reducing unintended consequences of law enforcement interactions with the public.

One author suggests that human error is often not a singular mistake, but a product of the environment the actor is working in. Granted, law enforcement officers at times must make split second decisions while other encounters with the public evolve over a matter of minutes lending themselves to application of CRM training. It is critical that first responders, including law enforcement officers, work as a team in these types of incidents, which is the cornerstone of CRM. Yet, CRM has not been widely implemented in public safety organizations including law enforcement.

CRM focuses on human factors being the source of errors as well as being the best source of avoiding errors. CRM can help law enforcement agencies mitigate undesired outcomes and unintended consequences by focusing on teamwork, communication and theoretical background knowledge. Team work competencies include, leadership, workload management and adaptability. Communication competencies include, professionalism, efficiency and reflection. Theoretical background knowledge includes, shared situational awareness and decision making, reducing human error and stress management.

One concern law enforcement may have with CRM is that it circumvents the traditional chain of command. However, this is not the intent of CRM. Rather CRM promotes team member input while preserving authority. This is consistent with the National Incident Management System (NIMS), under which all law enforcement agencies should currently be operating. Under NIMS, safety is the responsibility of all team members, where any team member regardless of rank, has the responsibility to clearly advocate their position if they disagree with an intended action. CRM builds and expands upon this concept. While this may require a culture change in some law enforcement agencies, it is a crucial change. A culture that supports the assertiveness of all team members regardless of rank or stature, to voice their concerns when they see something going wrong is foundational to implementation of CRM.

Summary

Abolishing, defunding, and de-staffing the police is not the answer. Reimagining and rethinking policing are vague concepts that fail to offer a solution. These are uninformed reactions by politicians and vocal special interest groups, many of whom are not supporters of law enforcement. Law enforcement administrators are best situated and informed to improve outcomes and minimize unintended consequences of interactions between law enforcement and the public. CRM offers a viable solution to avoid, capture and mitigate human error and minimize unintended outcomes of law enforcement interaction with the public. CRM needs to be implemented by all law enforcement agencies.   

About the Author

Greg Walterhouse is an Associate Teaching Professor in the Fire Administration and Masters in Public Administration programs at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Management from Oakland University, a Master’s degree in Legal Studies from the University of Illinois, a Master’s degree in Management from Central Michigan University, and a Specialist Degree in Educational Leadership from Bowling Green State University. Before joining BGSU, Greg had over 35 years experience in various aspects of public safety with 18 years in upper management. The author may be contacted at waltegl@bgsu.edu.


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