Do Police Officers Need to Buy Professional Liability?

By | July 6, 2020

Law enforcement practices and reform have been on the minds of many city government leaders in recent weeks. Some groups are advocating that police officers carry professional liability insurance.

Let’s examine this concept. For this discussion, we will keep it as simple as possible by focusing solely on local law enforcement, a city police department.

I will make two assumptions to start with. First, that the companies that are currently writing municipal liability (that include law enforcement liability), will be the companies best suited to writing liability for individual officers. This may not be the best assumption because insurance companies like change about as much you do (maybe a little less).

The second assumption is that the coverage will look substantially similar to the municipality’s current coverage. This also may not be a great assumption, but let’s run with it and see what happens. That aside, what are the practical issues with converting a liability program from an organizational level to an individual level?

Who has to carry coverage?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. This is a question that needs careful consideration. Are we talking about every employee of the police department? We can see that the patrol officer, who works traffic enforcement might need professional liability because that officer is driving around, interacting with the community. Albeit, not in my favorite way, but that’s another story.

The SWAT team member will certainly need coverage, and it’ll be coverage unique to their job because, well, it’s part of the team’s name – “special.” They do things that others do not do. So we get that they will need to carry coverage.

What about the officer who is assigned to desk duty? Do they need coverage? Their interactions would appear to be the public coming into the police station, maybe helping people with questions, answering the phone, filing certain paperwork. Maybe this isn’t a thing anymore and all police are out in the public all the time. I doubt it, but maybe.

What if the municipality has a jail that’s under the jurisdiction of the local police department? I would imagine that those officers might need jailor’s coverage. They are dealing with incarcerated individuals after all. They would certainly need coverage that includes transporting people from one facility to another, such as to county jail, to court, or potentially to a state facility.

A local police department near me is hiring for many different uniformed jobs. The jobs include police officer and court bailiff officer, which are all uniformed, sworn law enforcement officers who will need coverage. There are some other jobs that the department labels as civilian jobs (but still employed by the police and will drive official vehicles and wear uniforms). Those jobs include school crossing guard and community service officer. Since they have daily interactions with the public, they must have insurance too, right?

Who has to pay for coverage? That’s a great question, because if we’re using this insurance as a way to modify and control certain behaviors (as we manage the risks of people acting improperly), then it only makes sense to make officers pay for their own professional liability insurance.

That’s great, right? I mean, then the city won’t have to keep paying for their liability exposure now, right? Not exactly. The city is still going to have to maintain its own liability insurance to cover its exposures because they are still city employees. That means the city can still be held vicariously liable for what its employees are doing. The costs of the city’s insurance program are not going to go down even if they make officers carry their own liability coverage.

Let’s get back to the idea of the officers paying for their own insurance. How’s that going to work? This is not as simple as a new policy or city ordinance suddenly requiring the police to buy their own individual liability policy, in which each officer can walk into their local police insurance agency to buy insurance.

Once this thing happens, someone will have to find the carrier that is going to be willing to write this policy. Since we already mentioned that there might already be a market, we can gloss over this point for a moment. This is going to have to be a change in the conditions of employment for the officers. Does this become something that current officers aren’t required to do and is just for new hires? Would this be something that the city would have to negotiate with the police union? If this becomes a requirement, what happens if there is a lapse in coverage? Is that officer suspended or put on desk duty?

What if the officer can’t afford the coverage? Does that simply mean that they are no longer eligible to be a police officer, or does it depend on why their coverage is more expensive? Will it cost more for a rookie? How much of the cost is really dependent on the individual officer and how much depends on the quality of the police department overall? Will complaints about that department drive the price up for individual officers?

I have so many more questions about how this would work, but I think this is enough for now. I do not necessarily think that this is a terrible idea. A better idea would be to have a risk manager involved with the police department that can help educate the department in best practices and help guide the department. I also think it takes patience and caution because no one likes it when an outsider comes in to tell them how to do their jobs.

Is it a good idea? Maybe. Let’s wait to see what the policy looks like.

About Patrick Wraight

Patrick Wraight, CIC, CRM, AU, is director of Insurance Journal's Academy of Insurance. He can be reached at pwraight@ijacademy.com.

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Insurance Journal West July 6, 2020
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