Professions that deal in risk owe it to each employee to constantly evaluate the risks that pose significant danger to those doing the job. I used to laugh at the “days without an injury” posted at the local retail store but when you study risk and how to avoid it, keeping others aware of dangers and the success rate is a huge step in avoiding future risks. In early 2015, American Law Enforcement went 65 days without a line of duty death due to a violent attack. This was the longest recorded safety streak of this nature and Law Officer was one of the only sources to mention it. In fact, when I discuss that fact in seminars, it is not widely known. Our profession must tune into these issues and what we can do to prevent tragedy in the future. There are no new ways for law enforcement to die or get hurt. We have been writing our lessons in blood for decades. It is now time to learn those lessons and I have outlined five excellent ways to begin doing that.
One has to look no further than the nightly news to see that hatred and attacks against law enforcement has become common. Ambushes have increased; gangs are coordinating to attack cops; and law enforcement is facing an enemy with a lot of firepower. Calls for Service were the most deadly for law enforcement last year with traffic stops a close second. It seems that any situation that is unknown can be very deadly and one thing that has been proven through the years is that virtually every situation is an unknown. Last year alone, cops were killed at lunch, at extra jobs, checking on abandoned vehicle and keeping the peace just to name a few. The environment we work in has changed and instead of backing off of our equipment needs and training, we should be looking for all of the training and equipment that can keep us safer against a threat that is bolder than ever.
Over one-third of our officers are shot and killed while not wearing ballistic vests. Ballistic Vests should be required wear for every officer and before someone tells me that the agency can’t afford to provide a vest, just stop. If an agency can’t provide vests, they can’t afford to have an agency or their spending priorities are not right. If you have not been provided a vest, contact me. I will do what it takes to get you one and I would hope your department leaders would feel the same way.
Are rifles, backup guns and knives a part of your agency arsenal? If not, they should be. I can guarantee you that the bad guys are thinking about it so why wouldn’t we? Our training must be top notch in these areas including knife tactics which is woefully inadequate today in our profession.
For close to two decades, roadway related incidents have been the leading cause of death and injuries to law enforcement. Even more troubling is that over half of the fatality crashes involving law enforcement officers, occur without the officer wearing a seatbelt and single vehicle crashes occur more often than dual vehicle crashes, which indicates a high rate of speed. The danger with roadways should not be a surprise. Our heroes behind the badge log millions of miles a year and they work nights and weekends which is traditionally a higher risk for drunk drivers but the risks that law enforcement poses to itself is troubling. In other professions, a lack of seatbelt usage would bring great repercussions. Driving at high rates of speed to the point where control is lost of the car would also bring negative attention. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself why UPS, Fed Ex or the Post Office doesn’t have the same issue as we do despite their driving environments being very similar. The reason is of course accountability and our profession needs it. If we bury a cop, we owe it to them and the family that we have done all we can do to prevent it. I’m saddened to think that we have failed miserably in this area. Agencies should adopt mandatory seatbelt policies immediately and hold those not conforming accountable. Training in emergency vehicle driving should be more than a few days in the basic academy. Our officers should be exposed to a wide range of training behind the wheel at least once per year and if there isn’t a facility close, find a parking lot. The excuses must end and the training begin.
Emotional & Physical Health
Heart attacks have been the third leading cause of line of duty death to law enforcement for decades and every year more cops kill themselves with a firearm than the criminal element does. We have made great strides in these areas in the last decade but much more needs to be done.
Physical fitness standards need to continue past our hiring and we must treat our officers no different than a professional athlete in this area. To an athlete, their fitness drives everything they do and they are given the resources and support to make that top notch. If their fitness fails, their success in their chosen sport will be over with. No one would ever ask a NFL Player to work out on their “own time”. No team would tell a MLB Player that if they got hurt the team will no longer support them. We see the opposite in our profession. Workers Comp will argue that they won’t support officers that get hurt working out. Agencies will not provide “on duty” time to work out and some unions will argue against a mandatory fitness requirement while on the job. All of this combined with shift work and a lack of sleep is the reason our profession is not only unhealthy, but it also contributes to a higher divorce rate and abuse of drugs/alcohol. While as a profession we have failed in this area, there are officers and agencies that understand and they are working hard to reverse this negative trend. Every agency should develop a rigorous fitness team to provide their officers with the resources needed for success. Mandatory fitness requirements must be pursued and on duty workouts should be just as common as the lunch break.
The emotional well-being of our officers can sometimes be much more difficult to ascertain and help. Law enforcement recruits from Type A personalities of many that find it difficult to ask for help. Our agency and supervisors must ease that burden of asking by building an environment that permits it. Critical Incident Teams are common after shootings but what about for everything in between. There are officers quietly suffering right now because of external conflicts that may be out of their control. Every officer needs a copy of “Emotional Survival” by Dr. Kevin Gilmartin and don’t stop with that. Regular training should occur throughout one’s career in several areas including finances and marriage and that training should begin immediately in one’s career because habits are formed early and prevention is the key to an issue that plagues so many.
The antagonistic relationship that law enforcement has with the news media is nothing new but it is different in 2015 than it has ever been. The 24 hour news cycle combined with viral videos and an agenda that cares nothing for the safety of cops should have everyone in the profession on edge. In recent months, Congress has raised hands in the air (hands up-don’t shoot) over a story that was a complete lie; The President has weighed in on issues that he had no real facts on; and cities have burned all because the media is telling the context of a story that they may or may not even tell the facts about. Meanwhile, our profession sits back and watches. That needs to end because the safety of law enforcement is at risk. Agencies need to tell their own story and stop letting others dictating what videos to release. After all, the media isn’t exactly asking for videos that can be positive in nature. They are almost always about an issue that is difficult to understand or easy to misguide an audience. Agencies need to take public relations to the next level and tell their own story. Today, more than ever, it’s easy to do and for the safety of those behind the badge it needs to be done.
You may have noticed there is a common theme throughout the risks that law enforcement faces and that is poor leadership within law enforcement agencies. While there is more training and resources in this area than our profession has ever seen, bad leaders seem to mentoring others to carry on this terrible tradition. When officers don’t feel supported by their leaders, they may hesitate and that hesitation can get them killed. My good friend, Col. Dave Grossman, is one of the most dynamic presenters in law enforcement. His seminar called the “Bulletproof Mind” prepares officers to deal with deadly threats. Despite the threats facing law enforcement today, there are leaders in this country that won’t expose their officers to this training. It is to “military” some say. Our officers may be “too quick to act” others say and I say those aren’t real leaders. From our promotion process to our evaluations, leadership must be developed, mentored and rewarded. It does not take a rank to make a leader but you must be a leader before you are given a rank. To fail in this area may mean more than a disgruntled agency. It could literally be the difference between life and death.