Step Up or Step Aside

Over the course of the last year, I’ve been involved in presenting Below 100 to well over 1,000 trainers across the country. During these presentations, we often ask how many in the audience have been told by a field training officer (FTO) that officers shouldn’t wear their seatbelt while on duty. Inevitably, more than two-thirds of the hands in the audience go up. The reasons vary, but they always revolve around a feeling that seatbelts could be tactically unsound or might prevent an officer from escaping a dangerous situation.

A core tenet of Below 100 is to wear the seatbelt. So many officers have died in incidents where a seatbelt would have saved their life. In fact, a recent and in-depth analysis by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration of more than 700 fatal police vehicle incidents documented that 42% of the officers weren’t wearing their seatbelts. Another 7% couldn’t be determined. Given the nature of the review, it’s reasonable to assert that approximately 50% of the fatalities were not wearing their seatbelt.

During Below 100 presentations, we regularly ask for an example of an officer who died as a direct result of being confined by or entangled by a seatbelt. We have yet to find a single situation where this can be demonstrated. Conversely, we have hundreds of examples where officers could have been saved if they had only been using this basic piece of safety equipment.

Step Up
FTOs have incredible power and influence over new officers. Anyone entering the law enforcement profession feels pressure to succeed and demonstrate proficiency. They know that their FTO can make or break their career and there’s probably no other time in an officer’s training where they are so impressionable. Ask any officer. They’ll tell you vivid stories of their FTOs.

Recently, I was discussing Below 100 efforts with Paul Cappitelli, the executive director of California POST, and he made a sobering observation. Today’s officers have grown up accustomed to seatbelts as part of their life and their level of seatbelt compliance going into the academy is approximately 95%. Despite this initial high-compliance rate, Cappitelli cites studies currently underway that indicate that experienced officers wear their seatbelts at a rate of approximately 50%.

Think about what this means. Cops come into the job conditioned to do the right thing and wear their seatbelt. After they get out on their own, roughly half of them lose this good habit. A major reason for this, in my opinion, is that well-meaning FTOs are doing a great disservice to their trainees and shirking a fundamental responsibility—to instill basic officer safety skills.

I think most FTOs would acknowledge that their primary obligation to a trainee is to ensure they’re capable of doing the job and making it home at night. Assuming this is true, why do so many FTOs advocate a course of behavior that’s virtually guaranteed to increase the chance of injury or death? Although most officers will go through their entire career without firing their duty weapon, very few go 20 or 30 years without a serious crash. Why would we knowingly lessen their chance of survival?

If you’re one of those who find the seatbelt sometimes gets in your way, then train until it’s not. By the way, I sincerely believe that any officer who can master a safety-retention holster shouldn’t have any problem handling a seatbelt.

Bottom line: If you’re an FTO, you have an absolute obligation to instill basic skills and a safety mindset in every trainee. Encouraging them to go without a seatbelt is negligent and irresponsible.

Regardless of any exception provided in your state’s vehicle code, the laws of physics apply to everyone equally. How will you feel when you attend the funeral of a trainee who died in a crash that could have been survived if only they had worn their seatbelt? Do the right thing: Ensure your trainees wear their seatbelts and make sure you model this life-saving practice. If you can’t do this, then step aside so others can. We’ve lost too many officers already and it’s time to embrace common sense, not urban legend.


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