Your Most Deadly Weapon

As 2006 ends, a lot of police trainers are looking at the year just passed, and thinking about lessons learned. What should we be doing differently? What trends are developing? How should we modify our lesson plans and learning objectives to meet evolving needs?

This thought process usually leads to discussions regarding the number of officers killed feloniously over the past year, and a comparison of that number to preceding years. That's a much needed analysis, and a great deal can be learned from it that will help to keep officers alive.

However, much less attention is focused on a very common piece of police equipment that actually presents a greater threat to the average officer: the automobile. Every year since 1998 has seen more officers killed by vehicles than by felonious weapons (excluding 2001, of course).

Using the extremely valuable resources posted by the Officer Down Memorial Page, I have tracked the number of officers killed by vehicles (I did not include motorcycles, airplanes and trains, focusing only on automobiles), and contrasted it with the number killed by a combination of felonious gunfire and stabbings.

The numbers are startling in several regards. First, I was surprised by the relatively low number of officers killed in vehicle pursuits. Beyond a spike to 13 in 2003, the average number of officers killed in pursuits over the last ten years is 4.3; with the 2003 spike added in, it's 5.2. That is an amazingly low number, considering the number of pursuit miles driven by officers every year.

I was also struck by the fact that, other than a slight spike in 1998 (47), the number of officers killed in auto accidents had been remarkably "flat" from year to year, averaging 37.4, and ranging from a low of 33 in 2005 to a high of 40 in 2003.

The last five years have seen an uptick in the number of officers killed via vehicular assault. From 2002 through 2006, a total of 70 were killed, for an average of 14 a year, while from 1997 through 2001, a total of 61 were killed, for an average of 12.2 per year. Some of these were actual cases of officers being run down, while others were situations where a drunken motorist slammed into their parked patrol unit while they were inside.

But perhaps the most striking fact of all is that, when the four classes of vehicle related deaths are added up, the average is 65.4 per year, while the average of officers feloniously shot or stabbed is 56.1. Further, the average of these four "vehicle death" classes for 1997-2001 was 65.8, while the five year average for 2002-2006 was 65. By contrast, the 1997-2001 average for officers feloniously killed by gunshots and stabbings was 59.4, while the average for 2002-2006 was 52.8.

So, what do all these numbers mean? First of all, they mean that too many officers are dying in the line of duty each year! That is a plain and stark fact, and one that all law enforcement trainers have dedicated themselves to diminishing.

Secondly, they mean that, although statistics can provide guidance, we must never forget that every officer is an individual, and a valued member of our family. Numbers are statistics, while officers are people.

Next, they mean that even if we were able to reduce the numbers down to almost nothing, that would mean that there were still too many officers dying. Even one officer dying in the line of duty is too great a sacrifice, and one guaranteed to prevent trainer complacency.

They also mean that, when we trainers focus our energy on a particular problem--officers killed by guns and knives--we can have an impact. Those numbers didn't just drop by themselves. A lot of effort went into achieving even the slight declines noted.

But this is an EVOC column, and that means we should be talking about vehicle operations. When you look at these numbers for the last ten years, it’s readily apparent that, although a significant dent has been made in the number of officers feloniously killed by guns and knives, there is no corresponding progress in the number killed by vehicles. Yet, many departments that do an excellent job of training their people in use of force and officer survival actually do very little or no driver training, and when they do, the time in between training sessions is usually measured in years rather than months.

Even a casual perusal of law enforcement magazines and other literature will find many more use-of-force and officer survival articles than articles related to emergency vehicle operations. Attendance at national law enforcement conferences will expose the trainer to dozens of use-of-force related sessions, and perhaps two or three related to EVOC.

The Internet has become a primary resource for many police trainers, so let's look there. Try it yourself. Go to Google and search on the following terms: police force, police driving, police use of force, and police vehicle operations. Here's what you'll find:

  • Police force: 85.3 million hits
  • Police driving: 20.6 million hits
  • Police use of force: 37.6 million hits
  • Police vehicle operations: 1.83 million hits
  • And, interestingly, expanding the search to "emergency vehicle operations," a move calculated to draw in fire and EMS references, only gets 157,000 hits.

Notice that we haven't even tried to talk about officers injured by vehicles, guns and knives. There's a reason for that--little reliable data exists on a national level for such a discussion. And, what data exists is either geographically limited, or questionable in its scope.

When an officer dies, that gets reported. The definition of death is pretty clear. However, note that the classification of causes of death differs, even among those responsible for reporting the data that forms the basis for so much of our research into officer safety. Take a look at the classifications used in the FBI's annual Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) reports, then compare them to the breakdowns on the Officer Down Memorial Page. Some of the differences are obvious and problematic.

Of even greater variation are the ways in which we report data on officer injuries. Some data never gets reported at all. Other data is based upon that particular state's definition of "assault." And consider this: If you're parked along the side of the road on a motorist assist and a passing car crashes into your marked unit, is it a "vehicle accident" or "vehicular assault?"

The analysis of LEOKA data is fraught with pitfalls, and nothing is anywhere near as simple as we think it is. There are so many variables that even when you think you're onto something, another question pops up that causes you to re-think your conclusions.

We obviously can't, and should not, stop use-of-force training. The benefits are obvious and critical. However, is there not a corresponding need for a refocusing of effort in the vehicle operations arena?

Whatever the numbers, the trend is clear. There is a much greater focus on police officers' use of force than there is on police operation of motor vehicles. Yet statistically we've seen that more officers are killed by vehicles each year than are killed by guns and knives. Why do you think that is?

Stay safe, and wear your vest! (and Buckle Up!)