After spending almost four decades wearing a badge or supporting those who do, I’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve badly erred when it comes to a key component of officer safety. Specifically, we’ve emphasized individual responsibility while overlooking the importance of our collective obligation.
Trainers regularly instruct troops on specific police procedures while stressing the need for officer safety. The strong inference is that there’s a prescribed course of action or a technique that, if properly followed by the officer, will provide a greater level of safety. This is fine for the individual officer, but when was the last time you heard a trainer emphasize the need to engage in courageous conversations so that the safety of other officers is improved?
A major Midwestern police agency lists officer safety as a core value on its website and then follows with this statement: “… [officers] must maintain a high level of awareness in every situation.” That’s generally taken to mean awareness of oneself and the threats faced individually. But what if the definition of awareness were expanded to include officer safety across the board? What if we thought a little more about the safety of the officers around us?
Don’t underestimate the challenge. Many are drawn to police work because of the autonomous nature of the work. Within an assigned area, officers control where and how they patrol. During a stop or contact, the officer determines whether the outcome is an arrest, citation or warning. In other words, we value being in control and being able to exercise our individual preferences. By extension, this sets us up to refrain from telling others how they should be doing their job. This is understandable.
However, if we’re truly committed to improving officer safety we must have the courage to speak to others about using common sense. When they make decisions that could affect the safety of others, we have a fundamental obligation to talk to them or, to use a more descriptive term, to have a courageous conversation.
Brian Willis is one of the most respected trainers in North America and the Law Officer/ILEETA 2010 Trainer of the Year. When we launched the Below 100 initiative, Willis wrote an article in which he made two powerful, related assertions: 1) Ignored behavior is condoned behavior and 2) ignoring risk-taking behaviors results in law enforcement officers being killed and injured.
It is hard to misinterpret the point: We have a fundamental responsibility to say something to others in order to improve officer safety.
Consider these situations:
- An officer who doesn’t wear body armor risks the lives of other officers who will come to his aid when he goes down.
- An officer who fails to clear intersections endangers both citizens and other officers. (There are multiple names on the Memorial Wall of officers killed when police cars collided at intersections.)
- An officer who fails to properly search or handcuff a suspect sets up a situation where others may die.
- An officer who allows his physical condition to seriously deteriorate has transitioned from asset to liability.
No one said it would be easy, but having these courageous conversations is essential to shifting our culture to one centric to safety. The risk inherent in policing demands this approach. We must embrace an environment where it’s OK to constructively encourage others to do the right thing. Notice I used the word “constructive,” and this is important. There’s absolutely no need to tear someone else down. Simply tell them you care and that you know their family wants them to come home at the end of shift. Whether this is sufficient will be situationally dependent, but you get the idea.
During Below 100 training I’ve been approached by veteran officers who tearfully tell the story of the partner who needlessly died and how they wished that they had said something before it was too late. They would give anything to have that opportunity today. I guarantee you that they wouldn’t have trouble finding the courage or the words to make a difference now.
It’s time to stop thinking of officer safety as it pertains to us as individuals. We truly are our brother’s keeper. Stay safe.