Editor’s Note: While I believe in and support the Below 100 program, I also believe it has a few minor inherent faults. It’s a grand goal (below 100) and I’m delighted we got down to 106 in 2013, but what happens if we hit 100 LoDDs by August? (as the example and God forbid) Do we just stop and start over again the next year? What if we have a year where our total LoDDs are 99? Does that mean it was a successful year? Again, while I feel the Below 100 initiative has merit, I also believe that ONE LoDD is too many and we should all strive to reach the goal of ZERO. In that vein, I like Dave & Betsy Smith’s (The Winning Mind LLC) “Not Today” concept. EVERY day of our law enforcement career could be our last. We have to remain vigilant, alert, aware and constantly practicing strong officer survival skills to make sure that our last day is NOT TODAY. –Frank Borelli, Editorial Director, Cygnus Law Enforcement Media
In the first five and a half months of 2014 American law enforcement has already suffered through 53 line of duty deaths. The majority of these fallen heroes were line level personnel or supervisors. Firearms deaths are up 19%, auto related deaths are up by 39%, and 11% are death by heart attack. Overall police officer deaths are up by 10%. No chief, sheriff or commander wants to bury one of their own, so what can they do to improve the safety of their personnel? Here are a few practical things for managers to consider when it comes to officer safety.
Support Your Sergeants
Who in your agency has the most day-to-day contact with the personnel most likely to die in a violent incident or tragic crash? Who has enough authority and autonomy to take control and effect some change but is still out there on the street with the troops, living the cop’s life and seeing all that they see, every day, every shift? It’s the sergeants, the first-line supervisors in every department who can have the most significant and immediate impact on the safety and survival of the officers on your department. The sergeants are a bridge between command and the line; they need mentoring and support and from their mangers.
Sergeants must see themselves as “on scene coaches.” Like a good sports coach, sergeants must correct their officers’ errors and do it swiftly, but they must do it in a way that’s also going to change long-term behavior, especially when it comes to safety. As a manager, make sure you’re not saddling your supervisors with so much administrative work that they can’t effectively observe and coach their personnel. Help them reinforce the culture of safety in the agency, preferably on the street. Hold them to high standards while giving them the feedback they need.
Model What You Want to See
Make sure you are a role model for your personnel. Every range officer I’ve ever talked to has a story about one of his or her command staff who rarely sets foot on the range. Police managers are often seen everywhere from restaurants to crime scenes with no body armor, no duty belt, and sometimes without even a firearm. If you’ve gotten too wrapped up in your administrative duties, take a step back and assess yourself as a cop. Check your gear, wear your vest, get to the range and practice. Carry a back up gun and carry off duty. Make sure you are front and center at in-service training and that you attend supplemental officer safety training and tactical training as well. As a manager, you can’t just talk about officer safety, you have to live it.
Policy and Matters!
Make sure your policies relating to officer safety – everything from firearms to defensive tactics to vehicle operations to mandatory body armor – have the necessary funding to back up the general orders. Simply put, managing for officer safety means you have to budget for it. When funds are cut, it’s usually training that falls first, so be as proactive and creative as possible. Make your budget program-oriented and detailed, and be creative. In tough economic times, it may be necessary to re-define what “training” really is. Sometimes the best training comes in frequent, short bursts. If your officers don’t wear their seatbelts because they worry about getting out of the car quickly and tactically, then get them seatbelt extenders and set up a 15 minute show-and-tell during the shift. Make time for your people to watch a few minutes of dashcam footage via the Internet (or from one of their own cameras) and then discuss the situation in roll call. How would we have handled that traffic stop/pursuit/officer involved shooting? Could we have done things differently? What did the officers do right? Make the discussions meaningful and constructive, and relate them back to policy as well as officer safety. Even a few minutes spent on real-life examples helps “train” your personnel how to properly handle a similar event, and shows them that you’re still in touch with the field.
Get Feedback from the Line
Chain of command is important, but managers also need to build in ways to communicate with line level personnel while not undermining the sergeants. This can be tricky business; you don’t want to encourage the officers to simply gripe about their supervisors behind their backs but you need to be able to hear directly from the street. Keep your discussions positive and focused. Ask your officers and deputies, what can supervisors and managers do to enhance safety on the street? Keep personalities and union or discipline issues out of it, and then listen to what you’re being told. Act on what you can, and be honest about things you can’t change. Ask them to help you with realistic solutions and acknowledge their ideas and their efforts.
Be Committed to Your People
I was once chastised by one of my managers because I frequently referred to my patrol team as “my officers” or “my guys.” He felt I was being too familiar with them, he believed that supervisors and managers needed distance to be most effective. What a ridiculous, dangerous mentality. Creating a quality team atmosphere can be essential to officer survival, no matter how large or small your agency. Command personnel must advocate for their people, empower them, and remind them that they have an obligation to themselves, their families, and the agency to do everything they can to keep themselves and each other safe. They need to see and believe that you’re doing everything you can to give them the tools, training and information they need, they are more likely to return that feeling of commitment and caring by making sure they don’t disappoint you.
Get Everyone Involved in Officer Safety
The “Not Today” mindset involves everyone in the organization. Make sure dispatch, records, and other support services are just as committed to officer safety as your sworn personnel are. Mandate ride alongs, invite civilians to participate in or observe “tactical training” both on the range and in the classroom, and take the time to ask for feedback. Are your dispatchers seeing a pattern of officers not calling in their traffic stops until after the stop is made? Is the administration secretary seeing detectives leaving the building without their vests? Encourage an atmosphere of non-punitive discussions that can change behavior without creating hostility on either side. Remember, ‘Not Today” means that each individual is part of the “Conspiracy of Safety” that must permeate the culture of the entire department. From the custodian to the chief, anyone can affect officer safety and survival when commanders lead the way.