Photo: Ron Ocello
Consider the experience of one agency that asked not to be identified. An air bag activation fractured the wrist of one cop serving on this agency, so now many of his fellow officers have disabled the airbags in their cars by punching screwdrivers through the steering wheel.
Such subterfuge by patrol officers is nothing new. For years cops have been disabling seat belts and other safety equipment.
"I've gotten into many a squad only to find the officer before me had left the seatbelt buckled in so the warning chime would not ring," notes one Midwest cop. "We've been lucky that none of our accidents involved non-seat belt wearing officers, but I fear that day may come."
For some agencies and officers, that day has come and gone.
An investigation into the collision-related death of Cpl. Charles "Chuck" Nesbitt, Jr. of the Sumter (S.C.) Police Department led Patrol Cpl. Matthew Coffin to conclude that neither Nesbitt nor his passenger officer was restrained at the time of the accident and "both seat belts were locked solidly in place."
Addressing the Problem
Getting more officers to wear seat belts on the job, in part, comes down to the same sort of extorted compliance cops seek from civilian motorists: in other words an odd mix of laws, warnings, and penalties.
And that's exactly the strategy that some agencies are pursuing. The Chicago Police Department is one large agency that takes the matter of seat belt usage seriously. Its policy states that officers get one day off, no pay, no giving up comp time, automatically on a summary punishment request if caught not wearing a seat belt while a department vehicle is in motion.
Assistant Chief Mike Cochran of the Lauderhill (Fla.) Police Department is working toward having his agency's traffic unit pull the black-box data from every officer-involved injury crash using a Vetronix data reader.
"We already let them know that worker's comp settlements are reduced by 25 percent for injuries caused by one's failure to use a safety device provided by the employer," says Cochran. "With the Vetronix data being checked, officers know that wearing a seat belt is serious business. Agency members who fail to wear them and are in a crash will be subject to corrective measures and so forth. I've been to far more cop funerals of officers killed in car crashes than I have of officers killed by a bullet, but officers still don't seem to comprehend how critical a safety item these things are."
Other agencies are similarly holding officers culpable for injury coverage for injuries incurred in accidents where they have been found not wearing seat belts.
Missouri law allowed the Kansas City Police Department to cut the benefits of Sgt. Serge Grinik in half after his traffic accident. Protesting the department's expectation of Grinik to pay for half of his medical expenses, his attorney, Mike Yonke, claimed that Grinik had been in the habit of wearing his seat belt until a man who appeared to have a gun walked up to his car. In attempting to get out of the car, Grinik's gun got tangled in his seat belt. While a partner officer was able to subdue the suspect, Yonke's client decided that "he'd rather risk being hurt in a wreck than be executed in his car."
Yonke also protested that Grinik's injuries would not have been mitigated by a seat belt as they'd been sustained in a side impact collision. The case has not been settled.
Retired Reno, Nev., officer and POLICE Magazine contributor Tim Dees is not particularly sympathetic to the "too confining/can't get my gun out/wanna get out quickly" protests offered by cops who don't wear seat belts.
"I don't buy it at all," says Dees. "It's a rationale to justify flouting a rule. Of the hundreds of line-of-duty deaths I've read about, two involved being shot while seated in the car. In both cases, the officer was surprised at close range, and the seat belt would have made no difference at all (I don't know if the officers were wearing seat belts at the time of the incident)."