What if I told you that we could save a lot of officers' lives, reduce injuries and save millions of dollars if the police leaders in this country would simply say three words and stand by them? Could it really be that simple?
Policing the streets of America is a complex task and has inherent risks. Is it within the realm of possibility that just three words could make such a big difference? Absolutely! Police chiefs, sheriffs and labor leaders around the country could improve officer safety immediately, if only they would combine common-sense officer safety with a dose of common-sense leadership. Sadly, history has shown that very few have the wherewithal and courage to do what it takes.
So, about those three words. What are they? "Wear your seatbelt!" And the common sense leadership that's needed? Accountability for those who do not comply.
Across this country, we have officers who make a conscious decision to not wear their seatbelt. Peers know it, labor reps know it, supervisors know it and, sadly, chiefs know it. History has shown us clearly that some of these officers will die, many more will be crippled for life and an even greater number will be so seriously injured that they will be forced to leave the job. Remarkably, most who work without a seatbelt wear their seatbelts off-duty or, at the very least, ensure that their loved ones do.
How bad is the problem? Historical review of fatal police crashes by the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) show the non-wear rate to be near 50%. The 2013 preliminary FBI Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) report states that 14 of the 23 officers killed in crashes were not wearing their seatbelt—a non-wear rate of more than 60%. And in Below 100 presentations, we routinely have agency reps share that their department's non-wear rate is 50—75%. We've also been told about seatbelts that were cut out of patrol cars.
So, where are the leaders? This is not a secret. Police leaders (and this includes labor!) have not taken sufficient steps to ensure that the most fundamental and effective piece of safety equipment is being used. Accountability is virtually non-existent and, as a result, many officers have died and many more will lose their lives. Yes, I've heard all the arguments about equipment entanglements, quick exits for foot pursuits, not being trapped in the event of an ambush, etc. These excuses just don't wash in the real world. Hundreds of officers have already died and thousands more have been injured.
There is no other area of officer safety where the evidence is so compelling and the solution so clear. No doubt there are some leaders who are currently thinking, "We have a policy and it's up to the supervisors to enforce it." This is a cop-out unworthy of any true leader.
Here's what needs to happen in every agency in this country today:
- 1. Ensure you have a workable and enforceable seat belt policy that requires all personnel to wear one. If operationally necessary, allow an exception for certain situations (e.g., looking for an armed suspect in an alleyway) but never permit operation of a vehicle at a speed greater than 15 mph without a seatbelt.
- 2. Roll out the policy and make it clear that this is about officer safety, not about catching people doing something wrong. We want to send officers home to their families, not a mortuary. However, discipline has to be a component and officers who fail to comply must be held accountable, even if it means termination. Sounds harsh? It pales in comparison to the potential consequences.
I have heard a few agency heads say they could "never get it past the union." This is an outright abdication of leadership and, in my opinion, inexcusable. If ever there was an issue that is life-and-death for officer safety, this is it. To the degree that labor does push back, they are endangering the very people they represent. Leaders, stand your ground; this is a winnable issue. Labor, if you truly care about the safety and well-being of your membership, then become a part of the solution and engage this issue proactively.
Consider this: An unrestrained officer is not only less capable of effective high speed operation due to g-forces, he or she becomes a projectile that endangers others in the event of a crash. In other words, that unrestrained trainee could literally kill or seriously injure a training officer.
Bottom line: When it comes to seatbelts, step up or step aside.
Sources: National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (nhtsa.gov), California Peace Officers Standards and Training SAFE Advisory Group (post.ca.gov/safedriving), FBI LEOKA study and Below 100 (Below100.com).