When Harris County, Texas Sheriff Ed Gonzalez was a young beat cop with the Houston Police Department, a good friend of his, who also was a Houston police officer, was speeding on a highway when he hit a column and lost his life.
“I understood early on that officer safety is critically important. Not only when we are responding to a scene, but also sometimes in simply getting to a scene as well,” the sheriff stated during a recent discussion held by the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum on how to prevent traffic-related deaths of officers.
Traffic-related fatalities have long been a leading cause of law enforcement officer line of duty deaths. Fourty-four officers were killed in traffic-related incidents in 2020 according to the Law Enforcement Officers Fatalities Report, up from the 43 deaths reported in 2019.
“It certainly is a problem here in the greater Houston, Harris County region,” says Gonzalez. “We routinely lead the country in the number of fatalities every year and the number of impaired drivers on our roadways as well.”
Of the 44 traffic-related fatalities in 2020, 18 were crashes involving a collision with another vehicle, eight were single-vehicle crashes, 15 were officers who were struck while on the side of the road, and three involved motorcycles. In 2019, there were 19 struck-by crashes resulting in officer fatalities. The 15 officers killed in these incidents in 2020 represents a 21% decrease. With greater citizen awareness, expanded officer traffic safety messaging, proper vehicle positioning and reflective traffic vests, it is hoped that this number continues to decrease.
“Our patrol cars, with overhead lights and everything, can sometimes be a magnet, whether we’re stopped on the side of the roadway dealing with a traffic citation or simply doing traffic control at a major crash scene,” says Gonzalez
Officer safety concerns
Katie Alexander, who is a Law Enforcement Liaison with the Texas Municipal Police Association, stressed the need to change the perception among officers themselves. “A lot of people don’t see traffic safety as a priority. A lot of law enforcement officers tend to focus more on other things.”
She says that the biggest thing about traffic-related fatalities is that often times they are preventable. Educating the community, but more importantly educating law enforcement, is key, according to Alexander. While training law enforcement officers across the state of Texas, she often receives pushback on one topic that may surprise some: seat belt safety.
“Some of the excuses are just so farfetched,” she says. “I taught a class in a dessert area of Texas and I actually had a law enforcement officer talk about his concern about rolling his vehicle over into a big body of water, knowing that there is no body of water in that area, that was a little concerning to me.”
When introducing herself to officers at the beginning of a class, she often begins with the importance of buckling up. “I warn them in advance that I will get on my soap box when it comes to seatbelt use. If you have an excuse, I can assure you that we’re going to have a lengthy conversation about that.”
Early on in his career, Gonzalez remembers some senior officers, and even some trainers, talked about how they preferred not to wear seat belts because they felt it kept them too constrained if they were trying to make a quick exit or if they needed to get on the ground and begin a foot pursuit or if they were ambushed. “I definitely understand that those are serious concerns and definitely in this climate that we’re in these days, officer safety is critically important, but we also have to be attentive to the dangers that sometimes we can bring about by simply not buckling up,” he says. “We know that using seat belts can save lives. I make it to the scene of many fatal crashes, and one of the common denominators is many times, those who were buckled up survived the crash and those who were not, including young children, are ejected from the vehicle and have no chance of survival. Seat belts definitely do save lives.”
Alexander says that occasionally she will receive phone calls from officer who attended one of her classes. During one training session, an officer told her that he came to class without a seat belt on in his patrol vehicle because it had been broken for a long time. Before that time, he never thought to take it to fleet services to get it fixed, but after her class, that is straight where he headed to.
“Several weeks after that, I got a phone call from the same guy saying that not only is he wearing his seat belt in his patrol car now, but he now always wears it off duty.” He told her that the day before he was driving and lost control of his vehicle due to a tire issue and that if it wasn’t for his seat belt, he probably would have died. “When I hear stories like that,” she says. “It warms my heart and it tells me that these guys are actually listening to us.”
A focus on training
Another important topic Alexander focuses on during training sessions is situational awareness and the need for officers to utilize the resources around them while on roadways. Tow trucks and fire trucks, she says, can be used to protect the lives of officers and other first responders.
“When you think about the size of a fire truck, and I understand they are expensive, but when you’re looking at a fire truck as opposed to a human being, a law enforcement officer who is out there. When they are out there working a crash, their lights are on. People see that and it tends to attract their attention towards the lights. When that happens, unfortunately when your eye movement goes towards the lights, so do your hands.”
Harris County has a motorist assistance program and there have been times that they are parked on the roadway assisting somebody that may be out of gas or have a flat tire and their trucks have been hit several times. “It’s something about those flashing lights—especially with drunk drivers—that draw them to those lights,” says Gonzalez.
Alexander also spoke about the need to promote passenger-side approach in training. “With passenger-side approach, we don’t have those 18-wheelers—in Houston we have a lot of trucks that come through our roadways—they aren’t swiping by you at the drop of a hat,” she says. “We have so many law enforcement officers killed on the side of the roadway, whether they are working traffic or running radar.”
Gonzalez says that when it comes to training, practice and repetition must be stressed, even when it comes to tasks that may be overlooked. He recalled his training instructors recently talking about an exercise that they had with a NAVY SEAL. They talked about how smooth his shooting was and how second-nature his holstering and aiming at the target were. They stressed that it is all practice.
“It’s important that not only do we practice in the way that we want to execute whatever action we’re going to take, but it’s also the muscle memory,” he says. “We need to make sure that we’re also practicing that. We take a lot of time teaching defensive driving to our deputies and vehicles pursuits, but we don’t always also just take that time to practice just un-holstering your seat belt. That way you can feel comfortable that if you need to exit your car quickly, that you can quickly be able to unbuckle.
“It’s all practice, that which we practice then we’re more likely to perfect it, and at least it can all be instinctive. So, when something is happening, we revert back to our training. I think that is something we can reinforce more.”
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office recently created posters that read “You Can’t Save a Life if You Never Make it to the Call” and “Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow” that have gone up in patrol stations throughout the county. The agency is also reminding its deputies during role calls and has dispatchers sending them messages to the computers in their patrol cars. “Sometimes it’s just that small reminder,” says Gonzalez “Yes, it might seem like we’re nagging, but them knowing that dispatcher cares for them, that their agency cares for them, can go a long way.”
Another new approach the agency is trying for new cadets going through the academy program is sending them to a fleet review meeting so that they can better understand the best practices. Gonzalez said that it is about being forward-thinking and finding new approaches to spread awareness within agencies. “Hopefully these are all little nuggets that together lead to better driving safety. At the end of the day, we want to change that trend where motor vehicle crashes continue to be one of the leading causes of deaths of law enforcement officers in our nation.”
He says that part of the challenge is changing the mindset of many officers when wanting to take action and save lives is in their DNA as men and women in law enforcement. “We definitely need to train and remind all of our law enforcement professionals about smart risk and risk. There’s times when we’re the difference between life and death. We have to get to a situation as quickly as possible… But we also have to be smart and sometimes some of these calls—while serious—may not necessarily mean that we have to not wear a seat belt or that we have to exceed speeds that are unnecessary. I think that we have to measure that sometimes because sometimes if we simply slow down—both literally and figuratively—it could really be difference in us getting there safely and really being able to help.”
The sheriff stressed that it is also important not to be afraid of accountability. “Sometimes accountability doesn’t have to have a negative connotation. It doesn’t have to be punitive in nature,” he says. “I think that we can give reminders.”
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office monitors when deputies are using excessive speeds on a regular basis. “We want our police being crimefighters, we want them out there keeping our communities safe. We definitely don’t want to dampen their spirits when it comes to going out there and being hard chargers and tough on crime. I think that’s an important role,” he says. “But we also don’t want them to unnecessarily be speeding to calls of maybe a lesser priority.”
When a deputy who has been using excessive speeds is identified, supervisors are able to use that as an opportunity to counsel with the deputy. “If we need to, then perhaps patrol isn’t the place for them and maybe being behind the wheel of a patrol car is not a good fit for them. It has to be about us being grown ups and making those tough decisions,” he says. “At the same time, we want to make sure that we are using a soft approach as well and that we’re using tough love when we need to, but also using a softer approach.”
When Gonzalez was a rookie officer, his veteran partner told him that he had once stopped a vehicle and noticed the couple had a child in the back seat that was unrestrained. He was obviously bothered by it and gave them a ticket. Weeks later, he received a call from a deputy in the Colorado area telling him that he had responded to a fatal crash involving two adults and a child that was in the car. He said that both parents had perished in the accident, but the child was in the backseat and had survived because the child was restrained. In that car they found his partner’s citation that he had issued them.
“Sometimes not only can we make a difference by educating our own community, but also for ourselves so we can remember that we’re just as valuable,” he says. “We may not have someone giving us a citation, but hopefully there’s that voice that tells us ‘Buckle up, it can make a difference and save your life.’ ”