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The Character of Harms: Operational Challenges in Control

***** The Character of Harms: Operational Challenges in Control. By Malcolm K. Sparrow; published by Cambridge University Press, (Web); 272 pages; $31.99.

With this book, Malcolm Sparrow has made a significant contribution to the ongoing discussion of risk management by offering a radical change in both the context and terms of the discussion. A former detective chief inspector with the British Police Service and now a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, he will challenge your basic understanding of risk and risk management, and may even prompt you to reconsider your basic approach to the topic of risk management and problem solving.

Sparrow uses a thematic, multi-disciplinary approach, integrating cases as varied as drug interdiction efforts on the U.S. southern border and the compliance strategies of the Australian Tax Office. His argument is complex and nuanced, yet understandable. To grossly over-simplify, he proposes that we focus our efforts on reduction of the “bads” as opposed to construction of the “goods.” This approach, he argues, can attract more active partners to help us reach our collective goals.

Sparrow finds that many of us in our “harm reduction” work, regardless of profession, share common experiences. He suggests that we shift our immediate focus from the actual harms—whether they be air pollution or crime—to the great multi-layered “in between.” This realm, he argues, is where actual, significant harm reduction can be achieved.

Offering examples of intervention in the great multi-layered “in between,” Sparrow cites two successful U.S. law enforcement efforts: Boston’s Operation Ceasefire and San Francisco’s First Offender Prostitution Program. In Boston, police confronted with skyrocketing teen shooting deaths targeted the illicit gun trade and directly engaged gang leaders. As its name indicates, San Francisco’s effort targets first-time offender prostitutes and Johns with education and counseling.

“Pick important problems, and fix them,” Sparrow writes, skillfully outlining a variety of techniques and tactics for defining the appropriate problems to target for intervention. Later, he discusses specific categories of harm, including invisible harms, conscious opponents, catastrophic harms, “harms in equilibrium,” and performance-enhancing risks.

Sparrow addresses a consistent concern in the security profession: the challenge of measuring prevention. He acknowledges that preventive successes usually cannot be counted but says that aggregate reductions may be used as a proxy measurement for preventive accomplishments, and he suggests some unique approaches.

This is not an easy book to digest, but it is worth the effort for seasoned security professionals who are willing to look at risk in new and challenging ways. While primarily theoretical in approach, Sparrow grounds his argument and provides a series of interesting and pertinent examples that can serve as a helpful guide to practitioners. As he notes in his conclusion, the middle ground is where the most important work of harm reduction awaits.

Reviewer: Thomas E. Engells, CPP, CPM (Certified Public Manager), is the interim Chief of Police at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. He is a member of ASIS.