Focus on Crisis Management

Defining Risk for Leaders

By Vincent A. Dalfonzo

A stock image of a police crisis team.

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

— Wayne Dyer1

Law enforcement involves inherent dangers, from car accidents to exposure to COVID-19 to felonious assaults. Those in the profession also know the hidden risks, such as the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sleep deprivation. One study rated policing the 22nd-most dangerous profession in the United States and stated that officers have 4.1 times the risk of injury or death compared with persons in the average job.2

However, although law enforcement is always dangerous, in some instances it is not enough to simply classify the risk as high. Such is the case with critical incidents.


Leaders confronted with a crisis event, such as a hostage taking or a trapped criminal holding people against their will, must make difficult decisions with potential life-and-death consequences. The intelligence an on-scene commander (OSC) receives needs to be timely, accurate, and supported by situational and behavioral assessments to be impactful. One method in which this can be done is by providing the OSC with comprehensive and inclusive risk assessments that —

  • assess all stakeholders involved in the incident;
  • determine how risk may be changing (increasing, decreasing, or staying the same); and
  • evaluate who may be in greater danger.

Risk needs to be clearly defined, thoroughly assessed, and supported by “real-life citations,” or behaviors/actions displayed during an incident. For example, law enforcement moves a tactical vehicle into a position where the subject sees it and then makes direct threats to harm the police. This would be considered an increase of risk to law enforcement and supported by real-life citations.


The OSC needs to be advised of potential situational and behavioral factors that may cause risk to increase or decrease for those involved in the incident. Clarity of risk in a crisis is crucial. A risk assessment must include all stakeholders, such as the subject, person(s) being held, and law enforcement. Each needs a separate assessment to determine if risk has changed. Behaviors and emotions in these types of events are effervescent and may change in an instant.

Risk assessment should not be a single event but an ongoing activity to provide the OSC with a current risk trend to apply to those involved in the incident. For example, if the subject asks about how they could exit the situation without losing face, this may indicate a decrease in risk to both the subject and police because it shows a more rational thought process and potential for a peaceful conclusion.

Using the terms increasing, decreasing, or staying the same to define the current developments of the incident is not just semantics or nomenclature but an important feature of the risk assessment process. Defining the risk in such a manner and evaluating all stakeholders allows the OSC to gain clarity of the current trend of risk and reduces the potential for misreads during the event.


Humans are complex and, at times, unpredictable. Therefore, it would be impossible to cite every situational or behavioral variable that could determine the outcome of an incident. Assessment of risk is difficult in all circumstances but especially in stressful situations that require life-and-death decision making.

However, conducting thoughtful, more defined risk assessments supported by real-life citations may provide the OSC with greater clarity of the current situation and help them set operational priorities and manage resources during a crisis.

“The intelligence an on-scene commander receives needs to be timely, accurate, and supported by situational and behavioral assessments to be impactful.”

Mr. Dalfonzo, a retired FBI supervisory special agent, is an FBI National Academy instructor with the Leadership Education Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He can be reached at


1 “Wayne Dyer Quotes,” BrainyQuote, accessed January 30, 2024,
2 “Top 25 Most Dangerous Jobs in the United States,” Industrial Safety and Hygiene News, November 5, 2020,