According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington D.C., the numbers this year are staggering. The mid-year report shows that as of June 30, 2009, 26 cops have died in automobile crashes. That compares with 19 cops at the same point last year. This is 37% more deaths.
Focus on that number: 37%
Now, let's make it human. At mid-year, 7 more cops have died in crashes than at the same time last year. This year, there have been:
7 more flag-draped coffins
7 more pipers playing Amazing Grace at a graveside
7 more families grieving the loss of their husband, father, brother, son, wife, mother, sister or daughter
7 more cop families of co-workers who are dealing with a tragedy they did not earn or deserve
7 more names to be read at the Final Roll Call at next year's Candlelight Vigil
7 more cops who gave everything
WERE THEIR LIVES STOLEN FROM THEM?
That is the question of eternal discussion. There has been much speculation about the fact that vehicle related incidents have been the leading cause of officer deaths for the last twelve years. Other causes of death have declined while these continue to rise.
We spend countless hours training in fighting and surviving assaults. We learn how to grapple, face a blade, use the Taser and fight with our deadly force weaponry. But the numbers are clear: cops are far less likely to die in an assault than they are a car wreck.
Where is the training to prevent that?
How many agencies routinely provide EVOC training to their existing crew? The answer (unfortunately) is very few. It is expensive. It chews up otherwise good vehicles. It often requires overtime, which few of today's law enforcement budgets can afford.
Yet, this is the where and how cops - our brothers and sisters - are dying on the street.
If we fail to act, then to some extent, we have become complicit. We standby while watching our young people - our most precious treasure - get routinely slaughtered.
THE ROOT CAUSES
For a long time, I have taken the position that a major cause of these deaths is failure to develop and deliver training to keep up with the rapid expansion of technology in the patrol car. There is a training gap. Cops are NOT being taught the tactical implications of its use. Therefore, the technology has the potential to result in widespread distracted driving. This isn't the fault of the technology; it's the fault of the agency that fails to provide the necessary training.
Add the need to drive fast under certain circumstances when conditions are less than ideal and it becomes the perfect storm. A cop who is driving hard loses control and is killed in a one-car crash with a tree or utility pole. Some of them burn to death. Others lie in a vegetative state until the family pulls the plug. For most, death is instant. However it comes, it is never welcomed.
I overheard a law enforcement administrator in conversation with his second-in-command recently. The chief lamented that on his way to a certain event he had observed five officers from his agency who were driving. All of them had a cell phone glued to their heads.
The administrator was not pleased. His instinct was to issue a general order forbidding the use of a phone, the computer, etc. whenever the car was in motion.
While admirable, it will not work. It is a knee-jerk reaction. It fails to recognize that in today's environment, cops are mandated to stay in constant contact with a variety of people. This plan fails to recognize that many times dispatch sends cops on calls using only the computer. It disables an officer's ability to know who he is dealing with on a traffic stop before approaching the vehicle.
These technologies have become engrained in coppery today.
An administrator who has been off the road for a scant five years has probably never experienced the enormous role that technology plays in most cop cars today. The guy at the top is even less likely to really understand.
The reality of life for cops today is that they live and breathe with this stuff. Issuing an order that denies its use when the car is in motion is like telling the cop to turn off his radio and communicate with dispatch using area payphones.
So, what do we do?
We train cops to measure their use of this gear. We teach them to use it in a manner that is tactically sound. We do everything possible to allow cops to glean the vital information without putting themselves or civilians at risk.
It can be done. I have done it. I have taught cops how to look at a return from the DMV and know if the driver's license is valid based on the SHAPE of the text on the screen. I have taught them how to discern the critical facts based on the COLOR of the screen where it is displayed. They have also been taught to use their ears to detect problem children.
Cops can be taught how to position an index finger on a computer screen and using short, 1/2 second glances see the few words that give them the real low-down on an evolving situation.
We shouldn't tell them NOT TO; rather, we teach them HOW TO.
After all, they are going to do it anyway.
But, there's more.
FOR THE PSYCHOLOGY BUFFS AMONG US
A few months ago, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting another LEO, Dr. Patrick Halperin of the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office. He has his doctorate in areas of human behavior and a very long work history as a cop. In addition to an impressive formal education, he graduated from the Chicago Police Department's school of hard knocks. I consider myself fortunate to count him among my friends.
He brings together the best of two worlds: theory and practical experience.
"Doc" has significantly contributed to my thoughts on this issue and I want to share them with you.
Current economic conditions are causing cops to work more side jobs than in the past. It is therefore reasonable to believe that they are working tired more now.
The body - physically and mentally - has much in common with a machine. A set of inputs and demands will predictably generate a certain set of outcomes. The point: when energy stores dwindle and the cop gets tired, his overall capacity goes down, as well. Think of it like a battery that is running of out of juice.
Multi-tasking requires the brain to consume energy. Synapses in the brain are involved in making connections with existing knowledge, while external stimulus is being monitored from all five senses. In sum, all of this information is used to guide behavior.
When our energy supply is low, the body will automatically redirect energy to maintenance of core organs, something like what happens when hypothermia sets in. The body tries to preserve the vital organ functions. Hence, victims of hypothermia are reported to fall asleep before ultimately succumbing.
Cops being cops: when we realize that we are tired and maybe starting to doze, we look for something to get into. We want the adrenaline rush of a chase, an arrest or something to revive our withering senses.
That sounds good until you consider what happens when the rush stops: it is an energy crash worse than ever.
Making matters worse: when the energy dwindles, the sharpness of the mind goes with it. There is clinical evidence that a tired person is not receiving or perceiving all of the information from his environment. Terribly tired people do not even know what they are missing.
Realization is less clear when you are tired. You are using your energy stores just to stay awake.
That is a pretty scary thought when put in the context of a deadly force incident, isn't it?
SO WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT IT?
Boy, this sounds like an old song, but... GET ENOUGH REST before going on duty.
I know: that is often easier said than done.
When you are tired, REALIZE that your capacity for handling information is down. You will not react as quickly. You will not even see or hear as much of your environment as when you are fully alert.
STOP TRYING TO MULTI-TASK WHEN YOU ARE POOPED.
When you are fully rested, you might be quite capable of handling a vehicle pursuit, the radio, the computer, the cell phone and the Nextel all at the same time. At the end of a double shift, you are not.
Recognize your new limitations and to the extent possible, live within them.
Develop your own game plan. When you get into a stressed driving situation, know what you will do:
- Turn down the stereo
- Ignore the Nextel
- Leave the cell phone alone
- If mandated, watch the CAD screen for updates
- Stay off the instant messaging until the pursuit is over
- Use the radio to maintain contact with dispatch.
It is just like when on active patrol, you leave a well-traveled road and pull into a subdivision residential area late at night.
Almost automatically, you roll down one or two windows, turn down the stereo, dim the computer screen.
You need the same kind of plan that you automatically use when driving under stress.
Pay attention to the road. EVERY other activity else is extra.
When you are really tired, you may lack the energy to handle anything except driving. That is fine - it may be the difference between going home to your family or your body going to the morgue.
Together, we can save lives... let's start here and now.