Positive safety dimensions in high-risk occupations

Factors for feeling safe in the face of immediate risk.

Felix Wegerle is an RSM alumnus, a former police detective, and currently works for the United Nations in Austria. His master thesis investigated positive safety in the work of police officers.

Ex nihilo nihil fit. ‘From nothing comes nothing’; this phrase from Greek philosopher Parmenides (5th or 6th century BC) also holds true outside ancient cosmology. It’s true now for the safety of police officers.

In September 2018, I came to the Netherlands with the purpose of writing my master thesis. The topic, police and safety (by which I mean safety AND security) were way out of the scope of my usual business studies. Anyway, how hard could it be to conduct research about police and safety? After all, I used to be a police detective myself, and I knew perfectly well what safety means. Didn’t I?


Conventional understanding is that police officers are never safe

According to conventional literature, safety is defined as ‘the absence of risk’. This seemed about right. If you are not at risk you are safe, right? So far so good.

I reflected on my time as a police detective, and I quickly realised that things didn’t add up. My work back then brought me into some very tense situations. Enforcing the law, more often than not, means a direct conflict with whoever acted unlawfully. The more severe the crime, the more perpetrators prefer ‘flight or fight’ over surrendering to the authorities. Police officers often find themselves in highly volatile situations that can be full of risk.

So, if safety is the absence of risk, and police officers work in the presence of risk, the only conclusion is that police officers can never be safe. Yet, this logic didn’t resonate with my experiences in the police force. Even in dynamic situations – such as arrests, car chases, or undercover observations – I may have felt excited but not necessarily unsafe. Something was wrong in the way we defined safety.


Insights into a pessimistic tradition

I soon realised that safety isn’t the only term that is defined as the antonym of something negative. There seems to be a tradition of taking a pessimistic perspective when looking at concepts, which by their nature should have positive connotations. Apparently, we don’t enjoy leisure time, we spend time when we are not working; we are not in good health, we are in the state of being free from illness or injury; and we don’t live in peace, we live in freedom from disturbance.

All semantics, I first thought. After all, police officers don’t care about what the dictionary says about safety. They do their job to obtain safety, no matter how scholars look at it. I soon realised how wrong I was when assuming that these semantics held no implications.

If safety is the absence of risk, then nothing can be measured when there is safety, but something can be measured when there is no safety. This means that safety science, thus far, was actually risk science. Furthermore, police officers, as many other first responders, are subject to occupational stress, burn-out and so forth. Management in these professions can be a challenge – even more so if managers don’t understand how to keep their employees safe.

There is also a financial reason for making sure that police officers are managed the right way, because police institutions are often a major employer. The wider social implications of a negative safety definition are not hard to understand. Sooner than later, more people will be living in urban areas than in rural. This trend exposes more people to big city health risks, like mood and anxiety disorders. Even though the world we live in has never been safer, people are more and more worried about their own safety. How can police officers, the agents for maintaining safety, do their job if we don’t understand how to keep these officers safe?

Also, doesn’t it mean that city planners are ill-equipped to design cities of tomorrow if safety is the absence of something negative rather than the presence of something positive?

These were the questions that motivated me to discover how police officers can be kept safe in situations where they should not be able to do so. I tried to overcome the old dichotomy of ‘safety being the absence of risk’ by applying a positive safety approach. I interviewed police officers, instructors, and safety experts to identify what makes officers safe in situations of high risk and danger.


Five dimensions of positive safety for police officers

After I had interviewed several police officers and detectives, it became apparent that there are five broad dimensions that allow them to be positively safe while operating in risky environments: collegial trust, equipment, place, readiness, and competence and confidence.

Collegial trust was found to be the number one factor contributing to safety of police officers. The concept of having each other’s back is deeply rooted in police education and values. Nonetheless, research results suggest that colleagues also have to be competent in their work, in order to be a source of safety for their partners.

The second factor, equipment, implies that having the right tools and carrying weaponry improves the safety of police officers. And as with collegial trust, officers also needed to be knowledgeable about how to use their equipment in order to rely on it.

Officers mentioned place being an important factor in their safety, too. More precisely, central locations with open, bright spaces were found to be key. When working in situations that did not fulfil these criteria, officers could still be safe by being constantly aware of their location, so they could call for reinforcements whenever needed.

Readiness, relating to planning and personal preparation, constituted to another dimension of positive safety for police officers. Always being ready and best prepared to respond to eventualities provides safety for them. Nonetheless, preparation had a stronger influence on readiness. Over-relying on planning may actually have negative consequences for officers, or as one security expert interviewed put it: ‘no plan survives the first contact.’

Last, competence and confidence, including agents’ experience, education, and self-esteem, were deemed an important factor. They were found to also have mediated effects from other factors such as place, collegial trust, and equipment.


Overcoming negative definitions

Sitting in on interview sessions with police officers, one thing was clear to me: safety of police officers is more than the absence of risk. It is the presence of certain internal factors and external factors. Internal factors are competence and confidence, readiness. External factors are place, collegial trust, equipment.

I believe that these findings are relevant for all of us, whether we have a stake in the realm of safety or not. Ex nihilo nihil fit. ‘From the absence of something, nothing can come’. We saw how from the absence of risk, there can be no safety. Now it’s time to reconsider the way we look at things and ask ourselves some fundamental questions.

After handing in my thesis, I don’t want to be free from tension and anxiety, I want to be positively relaxed!

For more information please contact Felix Wegerle.

Photo: On police exchange in Miami, Felix Wegerle.


If you enjoyed reading this, try another one in our series of blog posts about aspects of safety from the Centre of Excellence in Public Safety Management (CESAM) at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). It is intended to act as an introduction to the Centre’s work; to promote and foster the professional development and management of public safety organisations, and to give CESAM members a platform to share their observations and experiences as academics and citizens.



CESAM blog