Safety Starts at the Top

Officer Murray Hoyle often went out of his way to greet me and he would always walk up and punch me in the chest. “Just making sure you got your vest on, Pete,” he would always say. Even though I was a command level officer at Oakland (Calif.) PD, I appreciated the vest check, because Murray understood the importance of sending the right message to the troops and the basic safety issue involved with wearing armor. Other command officers (if they even went out on the street) were not consistent in wearing their armor. Unfortunately, that included the chief.

This story certainly isn’t confined to Oakland. Until recently, I was the director of Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). In that position, I saw too many law enforcement personnel not wearing body armor. I know of at least one agency where command staff officers are not required to wear body armor as a matter of policy.

Wearing your armor, a core tenet of Below 100, is absolutely under your control. The choice to wear it is yours, as is the choice to ignore or challenge others when they don’t wear their armor. Over the years, the flexibility and protection levels of armor have significantly improved. Many agencies have gone to external vest carriers and this improves the comfort level. If it takes a change in policy or uniforms to ensure officers are wearing armor, then so be it. It will save lives. Going without armor is not an option. The questions to ask are: Why not wear body armor? And if you observe a colleague not wearing armor, why aren’t you saying something to them?

If you’re a supervisor or command level officer, it’s even more important because you’re sending a very strong message to your troops. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that they don’t notice. Unfortunately, we’ve all seen it: command staff leaves the building without their safety equipment. It’s because “nothing will happen” and most of the time, nothing does. But the responsibility to the members of the department, to obey the policies and set the standard by being an example each and every day should be a high priority. As role models, chief executives and their command staff must set a positive example. Wearing body armor should be considered an essential part of the uniform. For me, I could not imagine being in uniform and not wearing body armor.

Command staff should also set the standard with another Below 100 tenet: wearing seatbelts. I’ve seen countless televised news stories where a supervisor or commander rolled up and clearly wasn’t wearing their seatbelt. A particularly notable example occurred in Southern California, where a commander pulled up to an incident with the shoulder belt buckled in and behind him.

Across our country, officers continue to be seriously injured because they were not wearing their seatbelts. How many tragedies does it take to drive home the fact that seatbelts really do save lives? What would your family think if your death could have been prevented if only you had been wearing your seatbelt?

Unnecessary risks may save a few seconds or keep us more comfortable. Whether it’s not wearing body armor or seatbelts, those risks are absolutely unnecessary and foolish. I did not wear my seatbelt in my early patrol days and I was lucky not to have been injured or killed in an accident. Don’t take the chance; it’s just not worth it.

I’ve attended too many funerals and made too many hospital visits that didn’t need to happen. If we follow the Below 100 tenets, we can truly make a difference and more officers will make it home at the end of their shift. Don’t wait to do the right thing. Now is the time to make the necessary changes.

Pete Dunbar served more than 31 years in law enforcement, including positions as Chief of Police for Pleasant Hill (CA) PD and Deputy Chief for Oakland PD.

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