FEATURED IN BELOW 100
Last month, I talked about a basic plan to decrease the number of officers who die in the line of duty. I call it the Below 100 Project, and there are five key elements:
• Wear your belt.
• Wear your vest.
• Watch your speed.
• WIN—What’s Important Now?
• Remember: Complacency Kills!
Before you turn the page or assume this information does not apply to you, STOP. This does apply to you, no matter what your role in the department. And if you’re a trainer, supervisor or department leader (the majority of our readership), you can play a key role in decreasing the number of officer deaths to historic lows.
It’s been more than 50 years since the number of line-of-duty deaths was below 100, and it seems that many have come to accept the annual range of 150 to 200 deaths as the “norm” for our profession. But this is absolutely wrong! We must turn this around, and we can do so if we will take responsibility for our own actions and hold our people and ourselves accountable.
I want to acknowledge up front that there are some things that are beyond our control. We’ve recently experienced an alarming spike in targeted attacks on officers, and we all know that a madman with a long gun can wreak deadly havoc before the threat can be neutralized. There’s little we can do in these extreme cases.
However, these are the exception when it comes to officer deaths. When you actually look at our losses, it quickly becomes clear that many are preventable.
Let’s start with the area that we have the most control over—driving. On the walls of the National Memorial are the names of five officers who I knew personally. Only one of those was killed by gunfire. The other four died in vehicle accidents, and at least two of those were the result of officers driving beyond their abilities. The loss of any officer takes a tremendous toll regardless of the way they died. The fact that a death was an accident doesn’t lessen that burden. In fact, it may actually make it worse because the death might have been prevented.
I recently talked with Paul Cappitelli, the executive director of the California POST Commission, the group responsible for setting training standards for all California peace officers. Cappitelli made a statement that was both challenging and somewhat troubling: “There is too much tolerance for negligent driving in our profession.” I was reminded of near-miss incidents or certain officers known for having a heavy foot, even an officer who was nicknamed “Crash.” Cappitelli is absolutely right—the tolerance for negligent driving is way too high, and we owe it to each other to change our culture in this area. This won’t be without some pushback because no one likes to be disciplined. However, it’s better to be disciplined than dead.
One of the best trainers I know, Tulsa (Okla.) PD Captain Travis Yates, has devoted a good deal of his own time and money to improving officer safety through conscientious changes and improved awareness in officer driving. When I talked with Yates about the Below 100 Project, he was very supportive and expressed his belief that changing officer driving habits is essential to lowering the number of officer deaths. Without mincing words, Yates stressed that about 40% of accidental deaths are single vehicle accidents. “These are usually officers who are driving too fast and hit a pole or tree,” he said. “We want to believe that these vehicle deaths are a result of some random drunk driver hitting an officer but those are not the norm by any means.”
Yates stressed that failing to properly clear intersections is another area in desperate need of change. “Speeding through an uncleared intersection causes way too many deaths of officers and citizens,” Yates said. He also mentioned traffic control and emphasized the need for training and conscious action in this area. “About once a month we lose an officer who is engaged in some form of traffic control,” Yates said. “We don’t train enough in this area or give it enough thought but it’s definitely a killer.” When it comes to seat belts, Yates has little tolerance for those who go without. “Not wearing your seat belt is as bad as leaving your gun unholstered,” he said.
As for Below 100, it’s not a matter of if but when we get this number back down to double digits. We can do this, but it will take everyone at all levels to make it happen. Set a good example, and make it personal. Tell officers their families and communities need them. Hold others and yourself accountable. Remember the five points listed at the top of this column, and make them part of your briefing routine. Let’s make doing the wrong thing so uncomfortable that we can change a culture that has too long accepted 150–200 officer deaths as normal.
—Dale Stockton, Editor in chief