We're about three-quarters of the way through the calendar year and, if trends hold, our line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) will be down significantly from years past. That’s good news. But there continues to be a lot of misinformation in terms of how officers are dying and an outright reluctance to address the significant level of preventable injury and death that continues to devastate our profession. It’s as if there's an elephant in the locker room, and everyone acts otherwise.
The day before I wrote this editorial, the leader of a major international law enforcement group issued a letter that stated, “Police officers are getting gunned down and out gunned on our streets every day and more than 11,000 deaths by firearms occur each year.” The letter closed by urging everyone to “commit to reducing gun violence.”
The letter had been written in response to the murder of two deputies in Louisiana. Although I don’t doubt the sincerity or good intention of the writer, I’m puzzled nonetheless. Why didn’t we hear a similar call to action when we concluded the month of July with 13 dead officers, 11 of them from incidents related to vehicles?
For 14 of the last 15 years, more officers were killed as a result of vehicle collisions than by gunfire. Some years the vehicle-related death toll was greater than deaths from all types of felonious assaults combined. Last year, 2011, was the first year that the number of gunfire LODDs exceeded the vehicle-related LODDs. Incredibly, some viewed this as a call to action because officers were being murdered in “record numbers.” What about the elephant? Why are we not looking at the biggest and most preventable cause of serious injury and death in our profession?
One of my favorite people in the world is Gordon Graham. Not only has he spent his entire adult life in law enforcement, he’s become the absolute authority on risk management in public safety. His training sessions are known for a now-famous phrase, “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.”
Graham is often quick to point out that it’s really hard to stop bad people from behaving badly—that’s why we can’t prevent felonious assaults on officers. This doesn’t mean that we should blindly accept our losses, but it does mean that even the best of efforts will be limited in its success. Vehicle operations, however, are vastly different. Officers have a lot of control over how they drive.
Paul Cappitelli is the director of California POST, the organization responsible for the training of all law enforcement officers in the state of California. Cappitelli has become a strong advocate of a common-sense approach to officer safety: Address the area most under an officer’s control, specifically driving. Cappitelli recently said, “Almost all line-of-duty traffic fatalities result from poor choices, poor supervision, and/or poor management. Simply stated: Police officers are killing themselves by negligent driving at a greater rate than those being killed at the hands of suspects.” I agree. I applaud Cappitelli’s courage in pointing out the elephant that others ignore.
Every year, the FBI issues the Law Enforcement Officers Assaulted and Killed report (LEOKA). This report is an incredibly valuable training tool and provides an objective and sobering summary of law enforcement’s line-of-duty losses. The LEOKA program coordinator is Charles Miller, a law enforcement veteran. After a series of serious police driving incidents in Florida, Mr. Miller was quoted in the Orlando Sentinel: “It's more dangerous to give an officer a car than a gun.”
Finally, someone saw the elephant and had the wherewithal to say something.
Crashes kill cops. Just as importantly, they result in a huge number of disabling and devastating injuries that cost our profession dearly. We cannot shoot our way out of this and we can no longer afford to ignore the elephant.
I have frequently quoted Cappitelli, “We have too much tolerance for negligent driving in our profession!” We must embrace common sense and have the courage to enact change. Look around. You’ll see the elephant. Now say something about it.