The Top 3 Factors That Can Help Reduce Your Agency’s Liability Risk

What are considered liability risks? How can security rounds be a risk if they’re constantly changing? Can indicating a sign of life be considered a risk? What happens in case of an emergency? How can I reduce my agency’s liability risk?
Kenzie Koch
Kenzie Koch
Daniel Quam | Director of Jail Operations
Mark Cowley | JailOps
Greg Piper | Director of Training

Mark Cowley, Jail Operations at GUARDIAN RFID, has over thirty-three years of experience in law enforcement, eighteen of which were spent working as a patrol deputy advancing into an administrative position, and the following fifteen years as a jail administrator. Mark is a graduate of the FBI National Academy #225 and the Northwest School of Police Staff and Command. Throughout this career, Mark has learned several lessons but there was one in particular that he learned early on in his first year as a jail administrator that guided the rest of his career path. The three factors below will walk you through some of the most high-risk experiences Mark has witnessed throughout his many years of law enforcement, and what he recommends your team learns in order to reduce your agency’s liability risk.

During his first year as a jail administrator, Mark was convinced that his agency would pass their annual jail inspection. However, when inspection day came, Mark met with the jail inspector and reviewed the records indicating they weren’t spot-on with their rounds. Mark assumed they were compliant with the standards as he and his team continued to do what they had always done with their security rounds, which had passed all inspections in previous years. After some deep thought of all the factors that would have contributed to their failed test, Mark realized that he had not personally read or reviewed the facility’s written policy. This epiphany led his team to take corrective measures and pass their inspections every year following their failed test. Nonetheless, it was a hard slap of reality straight to the face. Mark and his team learned their lesson and took earnest time grasping all of the Idaho Jail Standards. Now, Mark has been an instructor at the Idaho Peace Officers Standard and Training and Detention Academy teaching Idaho Jail Standards for roughly the past eight years.

In the following years of the failed inspection, the facility supervisors were responsible for teaching the Idaho Jail Standards in all meetings and training events to avoid ever facing another failure. Additionally, they made sure everyone had access to the state standards documents so anyone could review and train with their respective teams. Mark saw the value in providing his team with updated operations tools and technology to make them as successful as possible, including inkless fingerprint machines, updated security camera systems, tasers, and body cameras. He also ensured his team was trained to accurately capture and compile security check logs, meals, supplies, special status, out-of-cell activities, and restraint systems. When it came to passing a jail inspection, the need for clear and concise reports was higher than ever, and Mark came through with flying colors with his quickly pulled data.

Security Rounds

Security rounds are otherwise known as an assessment of each inmate that should be conducted frequently throughout the day and night (the number of minutes between rounds depends on the facility policy). Regardless of the state you’re located in or the standards you adhere to, your policy usually reflects your state's standard for conducting security rounds. This allows staff the time to interact with inmates to ensure everyone is present, and more importantly, alive. In any instance, all security rounds should be documented accordingly. If the inmate seems to be sleeping, it’s the officer’s duty to confirm the rise and fall of the inmate’s chest and document “sleeping” in their security round log. No documentation = no security round.

As security round standards are constantly being created, modified, added, or dropped, it's crucial for your agency policy to always bridge the standards. To keep consistent, the standards must be reviewed with agency policy on a regular basis. If the standards and policies aren’t aligned with each other from the get-go, it will most likely cause problems later down the road. For example, Idaho changed its security round standard from thirty-minute inmate observations to every sixty minutes. Note that this standard is a minimum standard, meaning there isn’t anything that prevents jails from exceeding this by remaining at 30 minutes or anything less than 60 minutes. This prompted all jails within the state to review their policy. Being able to meet your policy while exceeding your standards helps benefit the deputies, inmates, Sheriff’s Office, and overall county. 

A deposition is not the time to find you have an outdated policy that the plaintiff’s attorney is about to hammer you on.
Chris Riedmueller
Product Trainer at GUARDIAN RFID

Close Custody Watch or Special Cell Check

A “close custody watch” or “special cell check” is determined when an inmate needs close attention and to be monitored on a more frequent basis. This may happen due to a number of factors: the inmate is on suicide watch, experiencing mental health issues, has a physical injury that needs monitoring, or may have drawn extra staff concern. Remember, your policy is normally driven by your accrediting authority standard for care. In most cases, the standard is to check on these inmates once every fifteen minutes. A normal security round is generally fairly quick and focuses only on the general inmate population, but a close custody watch or special cell check focuses only on one specific inmate and their behavior. Of course, this is important to document, too. For example, you work through a night shift and only document that your inmate was sleeping. Does the documentation specifically describe how the inmate was lying down? Was a blanket covering their body? Were they on their side? Did their chest rise and fall? Not documenting this information can quickly lead to hearing news of that inmate's death that next morning. Documentation stating “sleeping” just isn’t enough.

GUARDIAN RFID’s Director of Training, Greg Piper, preaches one major component in his training sessions: document one item that indicates body position and one item that indicates a sign of life. For example, when an inmate appears asleep, document if they’re lying on the right side, if their chest is rising and falling, etc. If you want to go the extra mile with your documentation, you can take a photo of the sleeping inmate to prove the position you described in your documentation notes. Don’t ever assume what the inmate is doing, document what you see, completely and effectively.

Emergency Operation

Every agency has certain policies driven by standards on what to do in the event of a “fire.” These “fire” situations may include a legitimate fire, but in other words, it’s known as an emergency. So, ask yourself, what operations do you have in place in case of an emergency? What if your facility loses access to water? What if you lose the roof over your command-and-control area during inclement weather? What if your kitchen contractor doesn’t show up with the food delivery? What if your world is turned upside down by a pandemic outbreak? What if your facility suffers a ransomware attack and you lose all your computers? These may sound like rare scenarios, but they are all possible and can happen at any moment (Mark has experienced each of these!) As with any emergency, staff will try their best to follow policy, but may develop new ones in a hurry to overcome tremendous obstacles. If this is the case, you still need a method of documentation showing your team is still adhering to facility and state standards. Supervisors need to be given the opportunity to make critical decisions during these emergencies, and those decisions must be made for the safety and security of everyone; staff, inmates, and the general public. What it boils down to is this, it really is not a matter of if you document, it’s a matter of how well you document. 

Every year the Jail Standards Committee reviews the standards to make sure we are always incorporating best practices and legal updates in our standards. The majority of county commissioners, jail administrators, and sheriffs throughout the state keep up with the changes in the standards and train staff to not only follow the jail standards, but to also clearly document their adherence to the standards. This not only makes jail inspections easier but helps protect the facilities in court challenges. Agencies that are non-compliant with mandatory standards, for whatever reason, have a harder time completing the jail inspection and often have to work on corrective actions.
Cindy Malm
Idaho Jail Standards Inspector/Standards Coordinator on behalf of the Idaho Sheriff’s Association (ISA) and Idaho County Risk Management Program (ICRMP)

Knowing your authorized accrediting agency standards and policy is a key component for reducing your agency's liability. Internal audits to measure and prove compliance with policies and state standards before an inspection and at regular intervals will help create a culture of compliance and accountability to ensure success. But it’s a team effort to pull this off successfully. Staff know when performing their duties or assigned tasks, they play their part in fulfilling the agency's responsibility of maintaining their minimum standards of inmate care. When your agency passes your yearly inspections, make sure your staff understands that you only passed due to everyone being a team player and doing their part in reducing the agency’s liability risk. Work together, and be #OneTeamOneMission