No doubt about it, police work can be dangerous. Confronting crooks and crazies is what cops do, and these activities carry risks. Improved tactics, training and trauma care have lowered the number of officers killed in the line of duty, but these gains are overshadowed by a growing threat accidents. Compared to a bank-robbery shootout or running gun battle, an accident doesn't sound very impressive, and it certainly isn't what first comes to mind when we think about the perils of policing. However, an officer killed in an accident still leaves behind a grieving family and department. Four officers with whom I worked or attended the academy have been killed in the line of duty. Three were killed in vehicle accidents; the fourth was shot and killed during a traffic stop. I've touched each of their names on the National Memorial wall, and there's nothing to distinguish how they died a grim reminder that death is the great equalizer.
Since 1937, the FBI has dutifully collected and published the details of officer deaths, reducing them to black-and-white statistical data. The figures, devoid of emotion, objectively convey trends we should consider. The good news: Officer deaths have decreased significantly. The bad news: Accidents play a growing role. Today, more officers are killed in vehicle accidents than by gunfire. Some may dismiss this as a fact of life, but that attitude is an absolute cop-out. We must reverse this disturbing trend.
When the military suffers a series of serious incidents (usually aircraft or ship accidents), they initiate a stand down a period of time when personnel perform only the absolute basics and perform an intense review to determine appropriate corrective action. When the California Highway Patrol lost six officers in just five months two shootings and four accidents the CHP commissioner ordered a stand down and directed supervisors to discuss the incidents with officers.
Although no common factor was identified, the effort proved valuable in other ways. Tactics were discussed and officers talked candidly about ways to improve safety. CHP officers routinely make stops on heavily traveled freeways, areas off the charts in terms of risk. After the stand down, I noticed some significant changes. Officers positioned their cars at a noticeably greater distance behind disabled vehicles or accidents. And whenever possible, they stood as far away from the freeway as possible; I saw some officers write tickets standing 10 feet on the other side of the guardrail. This is particularly important to traffic officers because so many are killed or seriously injured when struck by drunk drivers or out-of-control vehicles; just standing farther away from the roadway can provide enough reaction time to avoid tragedy.
During 2005, 54 officers were feloniously killed and 67 lost their lives in accidents (all types). The numbers for 2004 were even more dramatic 57 feloniously killed and 82 killed in accidents. If you brushed over these numbers, go back and look again. Note the obvious: Too many cops are dying in accidents. It's time to take a conscientious look at the way we do our jobs. At a minimum, take these simple steps:
Slow down. We tell our kids that speed kills, but we need to tell each other. High speed was the most common factor in vehicle accidents that killed officers, and half of those accidents were the officer's fault. If you're a supervisor, hold your troops accountable, and make sure they know high speed does not always win the race.
Wear your seat belt, and make sure others do, too. It should be as uncomfortable and unacceptable to go unbelted as it is to go without a vest. I know some officers say the seat belt slows them down or keeps them from getting out of the car during an emergency. If you're driving down a dangerous alley at five miles an hour with one hand on your gun, leave your seat belt off so you can jump out and engage. But otherwise, put your seat belt on! It just doesn't make sense to do otherwise.
Increase the margin of safety. Strategically place yourself and your car while on traffic stops and motorist assists. Remember: The passing traffic poses as much or more danger than the occupant of the car.
Train safely. Some officers are killed in training accidents. Training involves risk, but you can minimize this risk with common sense. Clear weapons properly, keep live ammunition out of training areas, wear safety gear and appoint a safety officer whose sole responsibility is to ensure training is conducted properly.
Last month, we honored our fallen at memorial ceremonies around the country. Don't let their sacrifice be in vain. Think about how we can prevent accidents. I do every time I touch the engraved names of friends on the National Memorial. Please, for the sake of yourself, your family and your department stay safe. — Dale Stockton, editor