Assuming or Creating Risk

Assuming or Creating Risk

‘We will risk a lot to save a lot and risk little to save little.’

There are several variations on this saying, including: ‘Great risks will be taken to save savable lives; Moderate risks will be taken to save savable property; and, No risk will be taken to save what is unsavable.’ Risk management is an essential component to the development and maintenance of strong situational awareness. I believe these sayings relate to public safety and other high-risk environments. By its nature, public safety is risky and no catchy phrase is going to make it safer.  But there is a huge difference between assuming the risk and creating the risk.

First, let me say I am completely guilty of confusing assumed risk and created risk.  Here my story:

One afternoon I was working patrol when I heard over the radio a neighboring agency was in pursuit of a motorcycle that had just passed a bunch of cars on the shoulder.  The motorcycle was headed toward our city, and I advised I would assist in the pursuit.  I saw the neighboring agency officer going at a high rate of speed following a high-performance motorcycle.  I swung in behind them and called out that I would be involved in the pursuit and I would call the pursuit on the radio.  Before long I noticed I was way behind my fellow officer and he was taking huge risks that I was not comfortable with (i.e., Heading into oncoming traffic blindly at excessive speeds).  The motorcycle eventually crashed (and the driver survived).  No officers were hurt in the pursuit.  After watching my squad video and debriefing with one of my supervisors I realized that I had created risk in this event and I should have discontinued due to the safety of the public.

I am not judging the officer from the neighboring agency. There are plenty of critics out there who rant from their high perches of judgment, often in non-productive and disrespectful ways. Tuck this lesson away and recall it often: When we’re judging, we cannot be learning. I hope those who read this here will learn and not pass judgment.

Let’s apply the maxim: We will risk a lot to save a lot. Will the risk of pursuing this motorcycle be rewarded with a worthwhile outcome?

Police work is risky, in fact, life in general can be risky. Every police officer knows that. But there is a big difference between assuming the risk and creating the risk by performing tasks in ways that are unsafe or inconsistent with best practices and sometimes we hide behind the testosterone-laden mantra, “We’re cops. That’s what we do!”

I am a police officer with 15+ years of experience. But I also have other obligations (roles) that are important to me. I am a husband, a son, and a brother (both in the biblical and fraternal sense). Maybe I am a selfish person, but as I age, I look at the big picture and analyze if I am creating risk or if the call I’m going on is assumed risk.  If I am creating risk, it’s not worth it.


It takes a real hero to stand up for safety, especially if surrounded by others who are consumed by their self-anointed hero status.

Drew Moldenhauer’s Advice

  1. Acknowledge the risks inherent in the work we do.
  2. Learn everything possible about how people get hurt and killed by reading near-miss and line-of-duty death reports.
  3. Discuss how to manage risk by using best practices.
  4. Ensure the risks being taken are worth the potential reward.
  5. Train on SOMETHING every day. The way to ensure peak performance is to make incremental improvements over time.
  6. Learn from the outcomes. Even when the outcomes are good, ask, “Did our actions make sense? What were the potential risks? What was the reward we were trying to accomplish?


Action Items

  1. Describe what your department does to support taking appropriate risks based on rewards.
  2. If your department had a similar experience (e.g., members were creating risk by performing tasks that do not match the conditions) how would you learn from it?
  3. Have you ever found yourself performing tasks that did not justify the risk? Did you stop or did you continue?

Written by:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Police Science and Leadership at Bemidji State University and is a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.  He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He can be reached at [email protected].