Over the last 10 years, traffic-related incident have bested fatal shootings as the leading cause of deaths among law enforcement officers.
During a classroom session at IACP 2014 at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., researchers and police officials focused on what can be done to buck the trend and reduce the number of traffic-related deaths.
There have been about 700 traffic-related officer deaths since 2004. The 70 traffic deaths per year can be compared to the average of 50 officer deaths per year due to felonious assaults.
An alternative to pursuits
Geoffrey Alpert, a Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina, spoke about a product called the StarChase. The system deploys GPS tracking tags on fleeing vehicles so that police can track them down without engaging in dangerous pursuits.
Alpert's team studied the system, and although the results we promising, he noted that some people will be skeptical.
"There all sorts of debates about pursuits that will continue to exist," he said. "What happens when you don't pursue and instead tag and track?"
Alpert said that data has shown that a majority of the time a suspect will slow down after an officer back down during a pursuit.
"Traditionally, when you back off you can still find the vehicle, but it can be difficult and expensive. Not that StarChase isn't expensive, but there's a chance that you can tag, track and catch the bad guy," he said.
"Not only can we avert the adverse affects of pursuit, but we can also track the vehicle."
The study encompassing 35 cases in which StarChase was used during pursuits were reviewed found that it took less than two minutes until the suspect slows down within 10 miles of the speed limit, there was also zero accidents, injuries and liability and an 86 percent apprehension rate with 44 arrests.
Alpert said that one commander interviewed during the study called StarChase "a game changer."
He stressed that while the evaluation of StarChase revealed the products benefits, it was not as expansive as it should be.
"I think a comprehensive evaluation has to be done to decide if it will continue to be an effective game-changer, which I think it will be."
Focusing on injuries
Jeff Rojek, a former police officer and current researcher at the University of South Carolina. Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice said that there may currently be too much attention focused on fatal incidents and not enough focused on non-fatal ones.
When researching traffic-related officer deaths, Rojek's team found that statistics and prevention often focus on fatalities, but wasn't being looked at as closely, however, was traffic-related officer injuries.
"The story is more than this. It's more than just deaths. We talked about injuries, which are not looked at as much," he said. "There is also the tragic loss for the officer's family and department, but no one wants to talk about the cost."
The estimated total financial cost of traffic-related officer fatalities can total close to $1 million, while the cost of non-fatal traffic-related injuries sustained by law enforcement officers can soar well past the $1 million mark.
"Looking at this issue as an officer safety and public safety issue, I hope our research will help prevent further fatalities and injuries."
Working with unions
Westminster, N.C. Deputy Police Chief Jeff Noble had a tough time engaging union officials while serving as deputy chief in Irvine, Calif., when it came to addressing officer-involved traffic issues, but eventually made some headway.
After being notified that there was an officer driving well over 100 mph, he did a search of the department's database and was surprised to find that many of his officers were driving recklessly while on city streets.
"There were so many hits that I couldn't count them," he said. "I was angry and upset and confronted the union about the issue. Every union has one guy that always had to give push back. One said 'Just give us the first chance to talk to them.' "
Noble decided to take the union official up on his offer and every month began sending its officials a list detailing which officers had been speeding while on the job.
The first month there were numerous officers recorded driving over 110 mph, the second month there were only 25 officers driving over 100 mph and after the third month there were no officers driving over one hundred. Before he knew it, officers were driving under 90 mph and the issue was under control.
"The union would sit down with the officers and just talk to them," he said. "It was very non-disciplinary."
There was one instance in which a repeat offender had to be dealt with. One union official called for discipline against the officer who continued to drive at high rates of speed. While the officer was ultimately not disciplined, the message was sent and soon he had changes his ways.
"You never see union officials come out in support of discipline," Noble said, beaming with pride. "Take the time to engage your unions because there are alternative ways to address these issues."