It's time to address the reality of risk in police work, specifically the source of the risk. Officer safety training has long been focused on scenarios perpetrated by a hypothetical bad guy, especially in regard to armed assailants and ambushes. However, statistics from the Officer Down Memorial Page (www.ODMP.org) reveal that only twice in the last 20 years (2011 and 2016) has assailant gunfire been the leading cause of death for American police officers. During the other 18 years, losses due to vehicle-related incidents exceeded deaths from gunfire.
Let's acknowledge upfront that an armed subject does pose a considerable threat to the safety of any officer. Last year, 2016, was a stark reminder, as 63 officers were killed by assailant gunfire and, according to the FBI, 17 of those were the result of ambush (either entrapment or premeditation). Perhaps most troubling is the fact that a single determined assailant was, in several cases, successful in murdering multiple officers.
Not surprisingly, most discussions about officer safety have centered on suspect actions and tactics designed to thwart the attack of an assailant. These discussions have merit and should continue to be part of officer safety training. However, for at least the last 20 years we've been so focused on the bad guy that we often ignored the elephant in the room: culpability on the part of the officers who have lost their lives.
Increasingly, a different type of conversation is taking place in regard to officer safety and it's being driven by Below 100, a common sense training program that targets areas under an officer's control. Focus on those last few words for a moment: areas under an officer's control. It is this approach that has made Below 100 so different from other officer safety programs.
I had the privilege of being part of a discussion in 2010 that subsequently led to the rollout of the effort now known as Below 100. The name reflects the goal of driving down line-of-duty losses to less than 100 annually, a level not seen since 1943.
When the concept was first coming together, I found the evidence and magnitude of preventable losses to be so compelling that I assumed there must be an existing effort underway to address issues like seat belt use, wearing body armor, speed, situational awareness, and complacency. After all, this was common sense, right? It quickly became clear that there really wasn't an overarching, comprehensive approach to tackle the issue of officer responsibility. No one had effectively said, "Look what we are doing to ourselves. We need to change this." Instead, we had chosen to blame others (the bad guys) for our losses rather than look at our own shortcomings.
Don't misunderstand the message. It is indisputable that bad guys do kill good cops. However, after reading more than 5,000 line-of-duty death summaries going back to 1980, I can state without equivocation that we, as a profession, have long failed to address areas that are primarily governed by our own actions, areas that have little to do with an armed assailant.
The need to place increased emphasis on areas under an officer's control becomes readily apparent with a simple examination of how a large portion of our losses are occurring: vehicle operations. Data from an extensive federal review shows that half of fatal police crashes are single-vehicle crashes. The primary collision factor is overwhelmingly speed too fast for conditions. Just as troubling is the fact that approximately half of all police officers choose to operate their vehicles while not wearing their seat belts. This has cost hundreds of lives and destroyed thousands of careers due to incapacitating and career-ending injuries. When it comes to speed, single-vehicle crashes, and failing to wear a seat belt, it is very, very difficult to place the blame on the proverbial bad guy. This is our problem and it is up to us to change it.
Below 100: An Overview
Below 100 is comprised of five tenets:
- Wear your seat belt.
- Wear your vest.
- Watch your speed.
- WIN: What's Important Now?
- Remember: Complacency Kills!
Pretty straightforward, right? Simple, some might say. Ah, but simple does not equate to easy. Law enforcement culture has a long history of resisting change. Sadly, many officers have died because they fell into a pattern of behavior that was promulgated by or, at the very least, tolerated by their department. Existing culture can be a very, very powerful influence, especially within the law enforcement paradigm where new, impressionable officers who are on probation readily adopt what they see as the organizational norm.
You Can Make a Difference
Despite the experiences of 2016, vehicle-related deaths continue to be the leading cause of death of police officers in this century. The pattern is continuing in 2017. This is an area where we can definitely improve and it's time for everyone who wears a badge to take substantive steps to increase officer safety through improved vehicle safety. Consider this: Which of these do you have more control over:
- A determined assailant, lying in wait, who is willing to die in his quest to kill a police officer;
- The actions that you take and the decisions you make regarding safety equipment, how you drive, and how you handle a call?
Absolutes of Officer Safety
Seat belts should be a given, speed awareness is critical, and officers need to wear reflective gear when investigating roadway incidents or directing traffic. We lose far too many officers to single-vehicle crashes where speed is the primary collision factor. These traffic losses do not make the national news like an ambush slaying but they are just as deadly, far more prevalent, and an area that we can absolutely change. And it's important to remember that career-ending injuries due to crashes are much more common than injuries attributable to assailant gunfire. These losses have life-long impact and dramatically affect public safety lives and budgets.
Putting Gunfire Assaults in Perspective
Despite the recent increase in unprovoked attacks, gunfire deaths remain relatively low when compared with just a few years ago. The 63 officers lost in 2016 reflect a recent high but the level of loss is significantly lower than the annual average of 72 that was experienced during the 1990s. Nonetheless, assaults and unprovoked attacks on officers remain frequent and should be a concern to anyone who wears a badge. There is little doubt that the level of hostility to law enforcement remains high and it's definitely a time for vigilance.
Body armor works, but only when it is worn. Officers who are in uniform should consider body armor a given, regardless of rank or assignment. Those in plainclothes assignments should use armor when making suspect contacts, serving warrants, or performing any activity where they are identifiable as law enforcement personnel. At a minimum, plainclothes officers should have armor readily available because even the most benign situations can change quickly.
Improved tactics are paying off but complacency can turn any situation deadly in an instant. Officers should always consider using a passenger-side approach during traffic stops and continually use contact and cover techniques when working with another officer. (If you're not familiar with contact and cover, check Google. It's super simple and it works.) The ability to self- or buddy-treat gunfire wounds is making a huge difference in saving lives. Every officer should carry a tourniquet and know how to use it.
During the four-year period of 2013 through 2016, 62 officers died as the result of duty-related heart attacks. This is not an "old guy" problem. The youngest was only 23 and many of the fallen officers were in their 30s and 40s. Heart attacks have consistently been the third leading cause of line-of-duty death for police officers. It's time to acknowledge this deadly problem and to become proactive. No one has more control over your health than you. At a minimum, know your blood pressure, your cholesterol level, your body mass index, and your family history—then do something about it
Below 100 takes the position that it is the responsibility of every person wearing a badge, regardless of rank or assignment, to take individual and collective responsibility for officer safety. This includes having the courage to talk to another officer about the five tenets outlined above.
Going into dangerous situations without adequate cover or engaging too quickly has been the story behind many police losses. If you know an officer who tends to push the envelope or take unnecessary chances, take the time to tell them that you care and that their family and department need them. Point out that they're actually endangering others who may have to come to their rescue. Confronting a fellow officer is never easy, but it's far better than going to their funeral. Don't wait because you may not get a second chance. Ignored behavior is condoned behavior.
Honor the Fallen
There are well over 21,000 names on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. None of those officers thought their final tour of duty would take their life. For many, their deaths could easily have been prevented. It is clear that we can dramatically improve officer safety by simply exercising common sense. That's the operational principle of Below 100.
Every LODD should be reviewed by trainers, especially field training officers, and information gleaned should be shared with others and at briefing. We must honor the fallen by training the living. They would want nothing less from us.
Here are two invaluable resources: 1) The Officer Down Memorial Page does an outstanding job of providing summaries of every loss. They have a great app that is available for free and can provide notification whenever a new officer is posted to their web page (www.ODMP.org). 2) The Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) report compiled annually by the FBI is a must-read for every trainer. It has a level of detail that can be very instructive. The only downside is the complete report comes out in the October following the year being reported. However, the FBI does provide a preliminary report that is released each year around Police Week. Check ucr.fbi.gov/leoka-resources. For more information on Below 100, check www.Below100.org. Remember, the life you save may be your own.
Dale Stockton is a 32-year-veteran of law enforcement, having worked in all areas of police operations and investigations and retiring as a captain from the Carlsbad (CA) Police Department. Stockton is executive director of Below 100, a national non-profit law enforcement training organization.