In recent months, law enforcement officers have been murdered or killed by vehicle wrecks in numbers not experienced for years. We can’t stand by and accept the loss of our brothers and sisters. It’s unacceptable to say that police work is just a dangerous job and expect us to simply go forward repeating the events of the past. We must fight to protect officers. And this fight must be directed at those who would willingly do us harm, and at our own institutions and practices that leave us vulnerable. When it comes to officer safety practices, it’s truly an us-against-them and us-against-us proposition.
But we aren’t doomed to repeat the past if we decide to actively work on changing future results. It takes far more than words and good intentions to make elemental changes in how we think and act. We collectively have it within our power to analyze our successes and failures, both individually and organizationally, to seek better practices and ultimately better results. By doing this, we won’t prevent all deaths, but we’ll reduce the number.
To explain how, I’ve often used this quote from English author John Keats in class and writing, “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced.” The truth of Keats’ statement is far more than the obvious saying, “Experience is the best teacher.”
The problem: Officers who experience deadly incidents don’t survive to tell about them, so there’s no self-awareness or learning, only disaster. And other officers will read or hear of a terrible event, but won’t believe that it’ll happen to them.
In the classes we’ve done on police use of force, I start by explaining that the most difficult job as an instructor is to convince officers that what they’re about to hear and see will happen to them. For those who have already experienced personal attacks and violence, the issues are real. For those who haven’t, it’s all stories and conversations.
The simple equation: If they believe, they accept. If they accept, they act. If they act, they train. If they train, they’ll act with tactical confidence. Force-on-force training proves the truth of this. Officers who train in conditions that mimic those they’ll encounter on patrol will demonstrate their skills and capability. This means physical, hands-on work. Do I state the obvious? Unfortunately not, because too many agencies do little or no training on physical skills, tactical response, firearms and driving beyond those received at the academy. Skills and success are the products of reading, hearing and doing—correctly.
We can’t guarantee the outcomes of much of what we do, only the processes we employ. The criminals and terrorists make decisions and act upon them, and we learn of these events in progress. They’re making choices that we have no power to change until we respond. It’s in the response where we have decision-making power. And response isn’t based on the good intentions of an officer, but by their actions.
Example: A “man with a gun” call goes out, and the first officer arrives on scene and drives directly to the point of contact with the gunman. Without knowing who the gunman is, his intent or the weapon type, the officer is now in the kill zone. Were the methods and tactics of response considered and measured, or was this just a blind rush into action? If this were a call of a volcano erupting out of the ground, would the same officer drive into the molten lava? No way. But is the danger any less? No, dead is dead—regardless of cause.
Let’s look at a couple of other areas where we need to evaluate our response tactics and adjust to minimize risks.
Police have authority to exceed speed limits and disobey traffic-control devices and lane-usage rules. When asked why police drive fast, officers tell me, “Because we can.” True, but we can’t violate the laws of physics or basic-safety practices.
In working with Law Officer on the Below 100 initiative, I was amazed to hear from Editor-in-Chief Dale Stockton that there are segments of the country where police officers are trained not to use seatbelts. I understand there are times and places, from a tactical perspective, when seatbelts may hinder a fast move out of your squad car. There are no absolutes, and we can always find the exception. But to engage in high-speed driving and pursuits without belting in is a proven factor in past officer deaths.
How many accidents have you investigated or arrived at where the driver and passengers survived incredible vehicle damage around them? In many cases, it’s a result of wearing a seatbelt. How many were lost as result of being thrown from the vehicle because they’d not used their seatbelts?
Now, why does this common knowledge apply to others, but not the police? How is it that a fundamental safety practice is a cultural norm in one state or region, and the opposite in another?
We can argue that we may get hung up in the belt. But simple training removes the fumbles under stress. I was taught to hook my right thumb under the chest restraint at center chest level and run my hand forward and down to quickly and accurately strike the seatbelt release button. Like drawing my duty pistol, I practiced this skill untold times until I could do it without thought. This is a simple solution that every officer can adopt, so as to instill a lifelong and life-saving safety practice.
Wearing Body Armor
Safety and self-preservation come down to the simple and conscious choices of each officer. Example: the use and wear of soft body armor. Just as it’s your choice to use your seatbelt, you decide to wear armor. To receive current funds from the federal Bullet Proof Vest Partnership program, it’s required that the agency has a mandatory wear policy. But it’s still up to you. The policy of your agency may state that it’s required to wear your armor and use your seatbelt, but you can choose not to. After all, what can they do to you if you’re dead?
Law enforcement tends to see things in end results. Determining if the situation had a good or bad ending is the center focus. However, the end-result doesn’t always tell the whole story. Would we have achieved the same result if we took other actions? Did we make the difference by planning and preparation, or were we simply lucky? Finally, do we truly analyze what we did and how we acted? Or do we just chalk up another success, and motor on down the road content with our result and secure in our abilities? We can learn through self-reflection. If it’s a failed incident, recreate it and train officers through it for success.
I believe we should approach every call and contact with a checklist of immediate needs. Typically, a serious call results in an adrenaline dump where officers are moving full-speed ahead with little or no contemplation. We need to train to slow down, consider what we’re doing, where we’re going and what we’ll do on arrival—all of which are critical tasks.
Accepting Responsibility & Accountability
The Firebird Forum is a risk management forum for industry. The editor, Bill Corcoran, sends out a newsletter that relates to industrial accidents and prevention, and the lessons have equal application to law enforcement. In the most recent issue, he writes about the failure to point out problems in the organization and in the methods used: “Thus, if oversight organizations are to improve, they must criticize themselves. They must ask the question, ‘What’s it about the way we do business that allows the latent harmful factors to exist until they become involved in consequential events?’”
For law enforcement, the harmful factors are both latent and obvious. The consequential events are accidents and violence that leads to officer deaths and murders. The lessons of industry apply to us agency-wide and individually. We must identify the “harmful factors” that take officer’s lives, and actively and aggressively remove them from our choices and actions.
By working together to reduce officer deaths and injuries, we can make a cultural change in our agencies and across law enforcement. Make the decision to lead by example. If you’re an FTO, you have a huge influence on your new officers—show them the right path. Bosses, follow the rules you set for your troops. Risk reduction isn’t a slogan—it’s a way of life.
Jeff Chudwin co-presented the Below 100 train the trainer session at the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILLETA) in early April. Something Chief Chudwin is adamant about: You’ve got to personalize Below 100 for it to work. As he put it, “If safety is everyone’s responsibility, it’s no one’s responsibility. You’ve got to make this personal.”
Critical Tasks: Self Test
Consider this response checklist, and decide if these are critical tasks that will protect you and other officers and citizens. After the next call you get, ask the following questions—and be honest with yourself.
1. What information did I receive as to the nature of the call, the severity of the crime, the identification of the offender(s), location, weapon(s) and direction of escape?
2. Was the information detailed? If not, did I request additional information?
3. Was my driving appropriate to the nature of the call as to speed, locale, traffic congestion and weather and road conditions?
4. Did I approach the scene with a plan? What was it?
5. Did I have assistance and was I aware of the identity and location of the units?
6. Did I stop prior to the immediate scene and scan the location for threats? Did I have a set of binoculars to do so?
7. Was I aware of a potential kill zone?
8. If first to arrive, did I broadcast the kill zone location and warning?
9. Did I have needed gear such as my patrol rifle/shotgun and go-bag immediately at hand, or locked in the trunk?
10. Did officers on scene work as a team in coordination, or did we all do what we chose to do?
Steps for Improving Officer Safety (Chudwin’s Challenge)
• We must identify the “harmful factors” that take officers’ lives, and actively and aggressively remove them from our choices and actions.
• We need to train to slow down, consider what we’re doing, where we’re going and what we’ll do on arrival—all of which are critical tasks.
• We can’t guarantee the outcomes of much of what we do, only the processes we employ.
• Safety and self-preservation come down to the simple and conscious choices of each officer.
• By working together to reduce officer deaths and injuries, we can make a cultural change in our agencies and across law enforcement. Make the decision to lead by example.
• Risk reduction isn’t a slogan—it’s a way of life.
• Engage with Below 100 (LawOfficer.com/Below100) in a meaningful, personal manner.