It’s turning out to be a tough summer so far for law enforcement. Officer involved shootings are part of our lives not only in large urban areas, but in small communities as well. From metropolitan Indianapolis, IN to the tiny rural community of Little River-Academy, TX police officer deaths by gunfire have increased by over 45% this year. What are we doing about this terrible trend? We’re talking about it, we’re attending more training, we’re checking our body armor, we are increasing our awareness.
However, it continues to be motor vehicles, not gun shots that kill more cops each year in the United States. In fact, nearly half of all 2014 line of duty deaths have been caused by vehicle related incidents, and a disturbing number of those were undoubtedly preventable if the fallen officer had been wearing a seatbelt. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, of the 733 law enforcement officers killed in a vehicle accident from 1980 through 2008, over 40% were not wearing a seatbelt. This blatant disregard for our own safety is difficult to comprehend. We all know seatbelts save lives. We document who was bucked up on our accident reports, we ticket our citizens for not wearing their seatbelts, and yet we tend to exempt ourselves from this lifesaving measure.
In 2013 California POST released a study estimating that nearly half of all police officers do not wear seatbelts despite the preventative nature of using them. It’s unthinkable for most crimefighters to hit the streets without their vest, but many of these same officers jump in their cars and respond “code 3” unbuckled. So what’s our excuse? What’s your excuse?
“My FTO told me not to.” Almost anyone under the age of 40 grew up wearing a seatbelt; buckling up is a habituated response for young people. When recruits get to the academy, seatbelts are emphasized, and no EVOC trainer would allow a rookie on the course without being buckled up. But as soon as that fresh-faced rookie slides in next to their field training officer, the chances are good that they are told seatbelts are unnecessary, and possibly even dangerous. If you are a trainer and you’re telling your student officers not to wear a seatbelt you may as well tell them not to wear a vest, or load their gun, or call in their stops.
“It’s not tactical.” This sounds like a great excuse, doesn’t it? So many cops have told me that they don’t wear a seatbelt because it might get tangled up in their gear or their gun when they try to exit the vehicle. But how many of you are trying to exit your vehicle at 60 mph while responding to a ‘burglary in progress’ call? Cops don’t generally get hurt or killed in crashes going 2 mph as they roll up to a scene. The “it’s not tactical” excuse is just another way of saying “I’m too damn lazy to train.” Un-bucking your seatbelt properly as you arrive at a call or make a traffic stop is a skill that needs to be practiced and perfected. Being “tactical” means balancing risks and acting accordingly. A patrol sergeant friend of mine told me that her troops are incorporating exiting the vehicle with the removal of the seatbelt; in other words, they are training for the realities of their job.
“I can’t draw my gun.” Some police experts call this “the myth of the ninja assassin,” but it is a possibility. Officer ambushes are on the rise, and we have had cops shot and killed sitting in their patrol cars at stop lights, on crime scenes, and on traffic stops. When you buckle up, position the seatbelt so that your firearm is unencumbered. Practice drawing and firing from a seated position, both buckled and unbuckled. Raise your awareness in general, don’t drive around in “condition white.” But recognize that you are far more likely to suffer death or great bodily harm while unbuckled in a crash than being buckled up and shot in your patrol car.
“I don’t want to get trapped in my car.” This is another law enforcement urban myth. Someone always has a story of a cop who burned to death because he was “trapped” in the car by his seatbelt. I’ve yet to read about a documented case of this happening but give me 15 minutes and I can name 50 cops who died getting ejected from their patrol cars because they were not wearing a seatbelt. It’s the structure of the vehicle, not the seatbelt that tends to trap officers following a crash. Visualize releasing yourself from your seatbelt after an accident, and make sure you have a quality knife that will help do the job.
There are also unspoken reasons that cops don’t buckle up. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is the most common one. If 30 or 40 years ago your FTO didn’t wear a seatbelt, chances are you don’t, and you taught your recruit officers the same thing. Remember, we didn’t have body armor until the mid-1970’s, and now it’s a basic part of our gear, just like seatbelts should be. Buckling up is also seen as a bit childish, or ‘less macho’ than we like to admit. By wearing a seatbelt we’re also admitting that we’re not invincible, and that can be a tough pill for some cops to swallow.
I’m honestly not sure what it’s going to take to get cops to wear their seatbelts. The solution certainly begins with FTO’s and sergeants who understand they must not only teach but model the correct behavior. We need to talk about the issue as well as train for it. Administrators need to implement and enforce appropriate and realistic policy, and police unions need to support management’s efforts. But most importantly, we MUST take individual responsibility for our own actions. Each and every one of us needs to buckle up, and then confront our friends and co-workers who don’t. The “Not Today” mindset means that we do everything possible to protect ourselves, each other, and our community on every shift, on every stop, at every call, and that includes getting their quickly as well as safely.