The Public Safety Conundrum – Empower the Sheepdogs

Public safety is a conundrum. It is acknowledged that mechanisms to ensure public safety are needed, but the various particulars of these mechanisms stir much debate in society. The concept of public safety refers to the welfare of the general public. The primary goal is prevention and protection of the public from dangers affecting safety such as disasters or crimes. It is usually expressed as a governmental responsibility, generally comprised of individuals from organizations such as police, emergency services (fire, medical, civil), etc., but also includes private security.

One key concept that is rarely examined is the reason we need a system of public safety.

If you focus on the risk to public safety from disasters, either natural (earthquakes, floods, etc.) or man-made (fires, accidents, etc.), then the logic for having a public safety system is self-explanatory. Few people would argue there are too many fire, paramedic or civil emergency personnel, or that their training and workplace functions should be highly controlled and scrutinised. It is easy to see the obvious benefits of these roles in modern society. They do an outstanding job under difficult circumstances, and are rightfully lauded for their efforts in protecting people and property.

However, if you look at public safety in terms of social disobedience and criminal activity, the issue is not so clear cut. People are generally content to live free and safe but remain blissfully ignorant of how this freedom and security is provided, so the visible presence of public safety personnel is an indication that a threat to their peaceful life lies just beyond the fabric of their daily existence. Some people also don’t like other people having powers over them that they don’t have themselves. This is the area that draws regulation, scrutiny and criticism, and it is also the area where personnel are tasked to do a certain job, but often vilified for doing that job.

Most people only come in to contact with public safety personnel, other than general customer service roles such as access control, administrative procedures or emergency situations, when people breach social contracts and necessitate the need for intervention by public safety personnel, who are the physical representations of the authority required when people cannot or will not take personal responsibility for their own actions. The fact that society needs certain people to influence the behaviour of others is a paradox that influences administrators, and frustrates operational personnel. The irony is that personnel exist for this aspect of public safety because of human nature. If people behaved themselves and conducted themselves respectfully, adhering to the established social contracts that guide civil conduct, then this aspect of public safety would be obsolete.

Social Contracts

The social contract is a theory that examines the origin of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual. Social contract arguments typically posit that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to an authority, in exchange for protection of their remaining rights. The theory of an implicit social contract holds that by remaining in the territory controlled by some society, which usually has a government, people give consent to join that society and be governed. This consent is what gives legitimacy to such government, which must be according to a constitution of government that is consistent with the superior unwritten constitutions of nature and society.

In simple terms, social contracts define the conditions of appropriate behaviour for harmonious existence between people. There are 2 main aspects to social contracts:

  1. Formal: written laws as legislation i.e. theft, assault, etc.
  2. Informal: unwritten but generally accepted guidelines for polite conduct i.e. giving way in traffic, excusing oneself if bumping into a person, etc.

An irrebuttable presumption at law is that every person is presumed to know the law. Breaking a social contract is mostly a choice, so it is the person breaking the contract that creates the need for a public safety industry. This is an aspect that is rarely discussed in the scrutiny and criticism of public safety intervention and action…what did the subject do that necessitated officer action.

As a society, we train officers and task them with public safety, but often condemn them for doing their job, in favour of public perception and political agendas. We give them additional force response options and weapons to control social disobedience, but then hamstring them from using them appropriately, in circumstances when a force response may be necessary. They are then often condemned after the fact for doing the very job they were appointed, trained and tasked with by society, based on comments from the largely ignorant masses in society who have never actually stood in harm’s way, but who are happy to accept the freedoms and security provided by these personnel and yet comment and point the finger with the bravery of being out of range.

Public safety personnel are often faced with a ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’ paradox of operational response, criticised for acting when they shouldn’t have, or not acting when they should have, or choosing an inappropriate or disproportionate response. In reality, situations occur and require management based on split second decisions in often dangerous circumstances and under extreme survival stress, yet they are analysed over weeks, months or years by persons who were not there and who often have no actual experience with this kind of irrational and volatile situation.

A rebuttable presumption at law is that people are innocent until proven guilty, with the burden of proof falling to the prosecutors to prove guilt, not the defendant to prove their innocence. It should be that those we entrust with the role of safeguarding society are given the same courtesy when analysing situations after the fact, and more focus applied to the actions of the subject.

Key Definitions

The following are key aspects of the public safety system, by definition:

  • Public the community, people in general (-social adj. living in a community)
  • Safety state of being safe (-safe adj. secure, protected, uninjured, out of danger, not involving risk)
  • Security state of being secure; precautions against danger (-secure adj. free from danger; free from anxiety; reliable)
  • Enforcement imposing obedience (to a law, etc.); imposing (a condition)

The basic structure of law enforcement can be divided into 2 circumstances:

  • Before the court system i.e. police, government agencies
  • After the court system i.e. sheriffs, corrections, government agencies

The security industry serves as an adjunct to both conditions of law enforcement, fulfilling roles and providing personnel in support of the above mentioned roles. Defence forces (military), whilst also an aspect of public safety, serve a very specific and more defined role, with a less visible presence in terms of social interaction for day-to-day civic control. Aside from the fact that the military are often used in service of a particular political agenda, the same issues also apply to personnel in this role.

The current system is overly bureaucratic and political, with organisations and the industry often not supporting officers who are tasked, trained, licensed to protect society. Why are some public safety roles elevated over others? Why are training standards different, and often disparate, when the roles and objectives are mostly the same? The security industry has personnel and presence at least on par with that of law enforcement, and as such, security personnel are becoming key first responders in emergency and criminal situations.

Security personnel are proactive in vigilance, prevention and deterrence but reactive in situation management. Personnel always get the blame and are portrayed in the media as brutal, uneducated thugs, but no one ever talks about the subjects’ role in creating the situation by committing an offence, being rude, obnoxious, violent, unreasonable, etc. Professional presentation, conduct and communication are the basis of managing situations, but customer service is only one aspect within the public safety role. Protecting property and ensuring safety of people is an overriding aspect, related to duty of care, and sometimes that means using assertive responses to control behaviour when the subject chooses to act in breach of social contracts and pose a potential risk to persons…the officer, the public and themselves.

In terms of tactical response options given to public safety personnel, once a situation reaches the point of force response, regardless of the operational role (security, police, etc.) and level of response (tactical communication, physical control, firearm, etc.), the reasons for responding are the same – safety (the officers, public and the subject) and control (the situation, subject resistance). Therefore, because the response options and the reasoning behind the responses are the same, training should be approximately the same – physical and legal safety within professional operational context – with additional role-specific inclusions.

In modern society with the threat from terrorism, security personnel are moving towards being tactical, both in presentation and to some degree, response. With security personnel at least on par with law enforcement, there is a valid rationale for empowering security with tasks traditionally undertaken by police. This not only frees police up, but also creates a greater deterrent profile in the community. The caveat to this rationale, though, is that for security personnel to inherit these roles they should also undertake appropriate and sufficient training, something which does not happen across the industry, and is instead left to the personal motivation and professionalism of individual personnel.

At an industry forum several years ago on updating the security training package, members from an industry association proposed the idea that crowd controllers should not have to do mandatory use of force training in their licensing course, as their key role was customer service and employers viewed security personnel ‘fighting’ at their venues bad for business. The proposal was strongly opposed and as such, use of force training was included in licensing training. This is a positive and fortunate outcome, as crowd control has the greatest likelihood of physical altercations of any role within the industry, and denying them the proper training and skills to do their job would not only put them in danger, but also the public they are there to safeguard. Had this proposal been accepted, this would have been another example of public safety personnel being disempowered, sent out to do their jobs with one hand tied behind their back. Whilst physical altercations are indeed a poor image, once again no one speaks about the fact that it is the subjects who (mostly) choose the conflict, usually fuelled by alcohol, drugs and hormones.

In the absence of proper training that includes lawful justifications for when to respond appropriately as well as physical skills that are professional and suitable for how to respond, most people when confronted with violence will use an ineffective response for 1 of 2 reasons:

  • Undercompensating and failing to respond appropriately through not knowing what to do, and therefore failing to ensure the safety of themselves or others
  • Overcompensating and responding inappropriately with a disproportionate action, usually through fear, anger or ego, often over-using force and causing undue trauma for persons

The Conundrum

Why is there such a reaction to public safety personnel being present in society, and being allowed to do their job properly? Put simply, there are 2 key reasons:

  1. It is a reminder that there exists a potential risk to peoples safety and wellbeing
  2. It highlights the flaws in human nature that requires certain persons to safeguard others

In his book ‘On Combat’ Lt. Col. Dave Grossman defines 3 categories of people in society. Most people are healthy productive citizens with no capacity for violence (sheep); they are kind, gentle and positive. Those with a capacity for violence and no empathy for others are aggressive sociopaths (wolf); they are people capable of evil deeds. Those with a capacity for violence and a deep love for others are protectors (sheepdog); they live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.

The sheep generally don’t like the sheepdog because they resemble the wolf, with fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference is that the sheepdog cannot and will not ever harm the sheep. Still, the sheepdog is a constant reminder that wolves exist. Even though we may well be in the most violent time in peacetime history, violence is still remarkably rare, because most citizens are decent people who are not inclined to hurt each other, and they need others to protect them from predators.

While there is nothing morally superior about the sheepdog, they do have an advantage – they are able to survive and thrive in an environment that destroys most of the population. Most people have a phobia that pushes their button (e.g. snakes, spiders, heights, etc.); however, a universal human phobia is interpersonal aggression, and the reason why it’s so toxic is because ‘it’s personal’. We process it differently and it produces behaviour that is not rational. We can accept acts of nature or illness, but we do not expect that one of the millions of people we interact with in an average lifetime will try to harm us. When another person causes our fear, pain and suffering, we struggle to accept the act of someone choosing to harm us, without provocation or authority.

Sheepdogs create the foundation of safety in society, and it is in this toxic domain of interpersonal aggression that we ask our officers to exist. Officers must be a master of the operational realm, and as such, they must understand its reality.

I’m not suggesting that public safety should not be appropriately monitored and administrated, just that it is a frustrating paradox that the very people who make it necessary for the public safety industry to exist in the first place are the ones who then criticise officers for doing that job, with unselfish devotion and personal risk, to create a safer society for everyone. This rationale may be idealistic, but any professional sheepdog has a constant battle within themselves between idealism (believing how the world could be) and realism (accepting and dealing with the world as it is).

As a society we should allow our public safety personnel the scope and power to do the jobs that society tasks them with, and need them to do. If we acknowledge that we require certain moral, disciplined and altruistic persons to monitor the behaviour of society as a whole, we should then allow them the courtesy of actually doing this job, and show them respect and gratitude doing it.

Richard Kay is an internationally certified tactical instructor-trainer, Director and Senior Trainer of Modern Combatives, a provider of operational safety training for the public safety sector. For more information, visit

Richard Kay
Richard Kay is an internationally certified tactical instructor-trainer, director and senior trainer of Modern Combatives, a provider of operational safety training for the public safety sector.