Editor’s Note: Traffic collisions take more lives and end more careers than any other type of police action. This is an area in which we have the most direct control. We can dramatically reduce our line-of-duty death toll and career-ending injuries only if we hold ourselves accountable. Make a commitment today to have that courageous conversation with someone before you live with a lifetime of regret.
“If it was easy to discuss these issues with those around you, there would be no need to call it courageous…”
A few months ago, I was in Dallas for a Below 100 class when an officer approached me. The look on his face told me that this conversation wouldn’t be ordinary. He was in his 30s, physically fit, but the look on his face went from a confident hero in uniform to someone who was broken. He wasn’t going to cry but it was apparent there was an inner struggle to keep it from happening.
“I wish I would have spoken to him. Who knows, he may have ignored me but I think about it a lot. How I wish I would have said something…..”
The sentiment of this young police officer with a long career in front of him was not new. Just a few days earlier I stood in Little Rock, Arkansas, and caught a man in my arms that was weeping. His career had ended long ago and all that was left was the pain of “what if?”
“What if I had told my best friend to wear a seat belt?”
Although the line-of-duty death happened decades ago, it played out continually for a man who had watched daily as his co-worker and friend never wore a seatbelt. This career officer couldn't get over the fact that he'd never spoken up and was left to always wonder: What if I had said something?
Denial Kills You Twice
I’ve heard my friend, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, speak about denial on many occasions and while he speaks of denial in regards to violent threats, there’s no doubt that it also applies to all matters that compromise officer safety. Denial can kill, but it often kills a second time.
According to Grossman, those left behind are “psychologically shattered.” With far too many line-of-duty deaths, we have not only lost the deceased officer, but others who knew about an unsafe behavior that they never said anything about. These psychological traumas are the collateral damage to a profession that has looked the other way far too long in regards to issues that are killing officers needlessly.
I first experienced a "courageous conversation" a decade ago when Tulsa Police Department’s (TPD) Sgt. Bill Goree pulled up behind me at the TPD Training Center. Bill was a fellow sergeant, a longtime veteran of the department and highly respected. Bill had followed me and observed my excessive speed to what he knew was a routine trip to the academy for a training day.
“You need to slow down,” he told me. “Think about your family. It’s not worth it,” Bill explained. Those words hung in the air just long enough for me to get mad, really mad.
I thought, how dare he tell me to slow down! He’s the same rank as me and he has no right. After all, what does he know? I’m the driving instructor!
My reaction is exactly why this is called a “courageous” conversation. If it was easy to discuss these issues with those around you, there would be no need to call it courageous. But let’s be honest about the great profession we work in—It can be difficult to speak with our co-workers about certain issues and that difficulty comes from the culture.
An officer once told me that he was taught that if a citizen can read your car number to complain about you for speeding, then you obviously aren’t driving fast enough. I was in Idaho recently teaching and a 20-year veteran came up to me after the class and said that in two basic academy classes in two states and countless training sessions over his career, no one had ever told him he needed to slow down or wear a seat belt. He was surprised at how much sense it made to be told what should be commonsense. He was in shock that he’d never been told, and he acknowledged that he never thought much about either of those areas until he went through Below 100 training.
Yes, these conversations are courageous, but we have to have them. Lives are lost when we look the other way. They’re saved when we speak up and set the example for others.
True Story of a Life Saved
A detective got in a car with his partner every day and heard the courageous conversation. “You need to wear your seat belt.”
The answer was always a resounding “No,” but the conversation would continue the next day—and the next. Sometimes it seemed like a wasted effort.
Several months into these continual reminders, the detective who refused to wear his seat belt attended a class that compelled him to heed the advice of his partner. A particularly powerful video, combined with his friend’s voice ringing in his head, convinced him that he needed to make a change. The courageous conversation and the realization that his family would pay the price motivated him to start using his seat belt that night. A week later, I received an email.
“Hurt bad, but alive” was the title of the email. I opened it up to discover that this detective was in the hospital after his car hydroplaned and struck a brick wall in excess of 55 mph. Seat belt in place, he had survived a horrific crash.
“Thanks for the class” was in the body of the email. But the truth was the friend deserved the thanks. Week after week, he had the courage to have that conversation and the seed was planted for eventual compliance that probably saved a life.
Yes, these conversations are courageous, but they’re also life changing.
The Police Culture
It seems that our profession has no problem debriefing a shooting, search warrant service or just about any tactical situation. I’ve conducted them and observed them for years. We don’t think much about it and we don’t typically get upset about it either. Looking at how we perform under stress and how we can improve in the future is just part of the job but it’s often quite different when we try to speak about vehicle-related issues. We can discuss how we can improve a room entry all-day long, but as soon as you tell someone that they may have driven too fast, you’ve thrown down something that’s rarely talked about. It’s almost like you’re questioning their willingness to engage. This has to change!
Whether it’s because we’ve all been guilty of not being safe behind the wheel or most of us have driven since our teenage years, telling someone that they need to use some commonsense in their driving isn’t a popular thing to do. This is in spite of the fact that from 1997 to 2010, roadway-related fatalities led all categories of line-of-duty deaths.
Imagine the outcry if we put phone numbers on patrol cars for citizens to report bad driving or our supervisors rode with us periodically to monitor our driving or regularly used GPS to track the speeds of officers. These mechanisms are commonplace for delivery drivers and other professional drivers, even though their losses are relatively low compared to law enforcement. Although I’m not advocating all of these practices for our profession, it’s time that we take an honest look at a culture that wants nothing to do with an open dialogue on our behavior behind the wheel.
Yes, these conversations are courageous but the time is now to start having them.
How to Do It
There are many methods and techniques you can use to have a conversation with someone, but I would suggest that you not lock yourself into any specific approach. Start by considering the person and their perspective on life and policing. When my fellow sergeant brought up my family, it woke me up. Make the words fit the person and their situation. There may be another approach needed for someone else and their circumstances. One thing is constant though: The fact that you care must clearly show. Demonstrated sincerity and caring make the difference that could just save a life.
The impact and change that can occur through courageous conversations isn’t easily measured because success means tragedy is avoided. I’m ashamed as to what I thought about Sergeant Bill Goree a decade ago when he told me how unsafe I was and I’m humbled by how much he cared for me and my family to have that courageous conversation. It couldn’t have been easy for him.
Everything changed for me shortly after that conversation. Not only did I change my behavior, but I also made it my mission to tell others of the importance of it. I thought of my baby a decade ago when Bill spoke to me. More importantly, that courageous conversation could be the only reason I’m writing this today and I’m around for my now 11-year-old son and two younger sons.
I’ve never said this before, but thank you, Bill. And to all of you who have the courage to do what he did, thank you.