Going home at night

More needs to be done to keep officers safe, especially when it comes to preventing vehicle-related deaths

     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.

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