Going home at night

     About 30 years ago, a law enforcement officer's odds of being killed in the line of duty were approximately one in 2,400, says Craig Floyd, chairman and CEO of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF). Today there are more officers and the odds are actually less: about one in 5,500,

     But 2007 was not a good year. The names of 181 officers killed that year were added in 2008 to the walls of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. This figure reflected a nearly 20 percent increase over the number of officers killed in 2006, and the year marked one of the deadliest for U.S. law enforcement in nearly two decades.

     Even so, Floyd says to keep perspective and understand that while 2007 was not good and 164 officers still die each year on average, the odds of being killed in the line of duty have improved over the last 30 years. NLEOMF statistics for 2008, current as of December 10, seem to support this.

     NLEOMF reports preliminary statistics showing 140 officers died between January 1 and December 10, 2008. That number is 18 percent lower than 2007 and represents one of the lowest levels in the last decade.

     Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) president Jennifer Thacker finds the decrease encouraging. However, she cautions that at any time the number of officer deaths can soar again.

     While 2007 could have been an aberration, Floyd says new technologies, along with new policies and training, are needed to prevent more law enforcement deaths, especially vehicle-related fatalities, which held its rank in 2008 as the primary cause of line-of-duty deaths.

Stopping bullets and more

     During the 1970s, the deadliest decade in law enforcement history, there were 228 deaths per year on average. How did that number drop?

     "From a technology point of view, you have to start and in many ways end the discussion with bullet-resistant vests," Floyd says.

     Officers began wearing vests in the mid-1970s and wear rates have steadily increased over the years. The International Association of Chiefs of Police/Dupont Kevlar Survivors Club reports more than 3,000 officers have been saved in both ballistic and non-ballistic incidents because they were wearing bullet-resistant vests. "As a result, there's been a corresponding decline in the number of officers killed in the line of duty," Floyd says.

     Unfortunately, many law enforcement agencies do not make vest wear mandatory. Floyd says they should. Ed Nowicki, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), agrees. On an 80-degree day with high humidity, a vest is uncomfortable, Nowicki says, but a bullet wound is a lot more uncomfortable and so are glancing knife blows, screwdriver attacks and automobile crash impacts. If an officer doesn't wear a vest, he says disciplinary action should be taken.

More less-lethal options

     Another technological advance that has made great strides in preventing officer deaths is less-lethal weaponry.

     When Capt. Travis Yates, manager of the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Police Department Precision Driving Unit, became an officer 15 years ago, his less-lethal options consisted of a baton and maybe OC spray.

     "We thought we had all the tools we needed," he says. "Then we started seeing additional options such as less-lethal ammunition, PepperBall guns and TASERs (conductive energy devices)."

     These options have given officers an additional margin of safety, and as a result, injuries including fatal ones have gone down dramatically for both officers and suspects, Floyd says.

Training to reduce traffic fatalities

     Traffic-related incidents have killed more officers than gunfire during the past decade. In the past 30 years, the number of officers killed in vehicle crashes has risen approximately 30 percent, while firearms deaths have declined by 54 percent. In 2008, nearly 50 percent of officer deaths were vehicle-related.

     Floyd observes nearly every officer will be involved in a high-speed response or chase at some time, while only approximately 10 percent of officers will fire their weapon in the line of duty. But while firearms training is common, he points out driver training is not.

     Yates, owner of www.PoliceDriving.com, says, officers often drive a car without ever having been trained to use that specific vehicle — or in law enforcement driving and pursuits. Beyond that, Floyd says officers also must understand that inside a cruiser, laptops, cameras, radar equipment, cell phones, radios and other technologies can be dangerous distractions. When they are on the roadway, Yates says officers also must wear ANSI Level II vests, and should be trained how to direct traffic and what lights to use at night.

     The issue of vehicle-related incidents can't wait on the legislature or state training agencies, Yates says. Rather, he says, "Law enforcement agencies must take control and give their officers regular training and sound policy."

NASCAR-like improvements

     Great strides have been made in automobile safety for the public including seat belts, airbags and public education. The same cannot be said for law enforcement.

     "Look at NASCAR," Floyd says. "Drivers are going 180+ mph when they crash into a wall, and they get out of their cars virtually unscathed much of the time."

     Police officers lack this level of protection.

     Like NASCAR, law enforcement could benefit from four-point seat belts and cruisers with a lower center of gravity, says Lt. Kevin Sommers, emergency management coordinator for the Warren (Michigan) Police Department and chairman of the National Fraternal Order of Police Safety and Technology Committee.

     Floyd says restraint systems need to be designed for officers wearing duty belts, and fire suppression equipment should be common in every law enforcement vehicle. When officers' vehicles are rear-ended at a high speed, he says officers often will survive an initial crash but burn to death because the vehicle catches on fire.

Training as if your life depends on it

     "We seem to immediately think technology somehow automatically makes our officers safer," Yates says. But if not used correctly, new technologies may actually create a severe danger for officers.

     Having an officer watch a video is not enough, he adds.

     Sommers says, "We have to instill a mentality that officers have to train as if their life depends on it — because it does. When you're in a stressful situation, you revert back to your training."

     Unfortunately, training is the first thing to go when agencies must trim their budgets. But when training isn't done, Nowicki says, "officers are injured or killed, or people inadvertently are injured or killed by police officers."

     Training creatively can help stretch limited dollars, he says. The following ideas might help agencies maintain a high level of training on a shoestring budget:

  • Officers have many areas of skill and expertise. Supervisors should learn what they are and put them to good use. Smaller agencies may benefit from sharing the skills of their officers with neighboring agencies, which should do the same in return.
  • Civilians attending the citizen police academy may be able to help with training. For example, a prosecutor could provide a free legal update.
  • State and federal agencies offer free training resources.
  • Officers can train other officers. One officer could work under the tutelage of another officer on a different shift to learn more about training, then go back and talk to officers on his shift about safety issues or train to improve baton striking skills, for example.
  • Full-time trainers must remember they exist to support the line. They should be conducting training during the shifts officers are working, for example.

     If an officer must know something, he says his or her skills must be tested. When departments issue a new use-of-force policy, for instance, and ask officers to sign their names if they understand it, Nowicki says it means nothing. Officers must demonstrate they know how to use the policy.

Challenges of policing today

     Due to the technological advances in body armor, less-lethal technology and weapons that Sommers has witnessed as a 25-year veteran of law enforcement, he worries officers may be developing a false sense of security. "The mentality of people out on the street is much more violent," he warns. "It seems like life doesn't have as much value as it did in the past."

     Policing is different everywhere, says Dr. Gary Aumiller, executive director of the Society for Police and Criminal Psychology. In New York, he says the recent focus on security has made policing safer. Yet today's difficult economic times will likely lead citizens to take drastic measures. Aumiller predicts criminal behaviors such as stealing will increase along with violence against police officers, while at the same time police officers themselves will face more stress trying to make ends meet.

     While Yates does not perceive the criminal element as being any less violent toward law enforcement than when he first started, he's pleased technology and training has progressed dramatically. That said, he feels traffic-related deaths have been ignored.

     "What we are experiencing in law enforcement today, with almost half of the officers killed dying in vehicle-related incidents, is nothing short of an extreme crisis," he says. "We are seeing more officers killed and injured behind the wheel of a car than at any other time in history."

     The reaction from management, too often, is nothing, he says.

     "We view driving injuries and deaths as part of doing the job," he says. "It is just the opposite. The deaths occurring in these cars are even more preventable than violent deaths. Law enforcement must attack this troubling dilemma now."

Setting the tone for safety

     While action must be taken, Floyd says, "Unfortunately, no matter what we do, it's not going to be enough to prevent every police fatality. We must ask ourselves what is making a difference, and what we should be doing that we are not right now."

     Yates says commanding officers set the tone for safety.

     "Often we think it is a sergeant's job to ensure safety or the academy's job to train officers but the reality is we are the key," he says. "If safety and training [are] important to us, it will be important to those under us."

     Too often he says commanders worry about the budget, staffing, equipment and other things.

     "The most important job of a police administrator is to give their officers a safe environment," Yates reminds. "We have to play a part in our officers going home at night. To not give officers regular training in high-risk activities is nothing short of derelict of duty. Training in firearms, driving and other high-risk activities on a yearly basis is the minimum officers should be doing."

     When it comes to safety, he says unions are not off the hook either.

     "While an emphasis on officer benefits is valid, the top priority of any law enforcement labor organization must be officer safety," he says. "If management isn't going to train officers, then the union must be ready to step in."

     A good example of a union focused on safety is the Omaha Police Union in Nebraska, which has a safety committee that recommends how its officers can be safer.

     If an agency can't provide safety for its officers, it's not going to be able to hire or retain them, says Andrea Mournighan, director of governmental affairs for the National Association of Police Organizations. But state and local governments often lack the resources to provide officers the training and technology they need. That's where the federal government needs to step in, Mournighan says.

     Safety incorporates so many different issues, she says, but officers need support from all levels of government. Once an agency ensures officer safety, she says a happy, content workforce will be able to provide public safety.

     Rebecca Kanable specializes in writing about law enforcement topics. Kanable, a Wisconsin resident, can be reached at kanable@charter.net.