FEATURED IN BELOW 100
In the first six months of 2010, 87 officers lost their lives while on duty. This is a dramatic increase over the same period last year and represents an alarming trend. Much of the spotlight has been on an increase in targeted attacks on police officers, but the bigger story should be that deaths related to accidents are also up. In fact, more than half of those 87 deaths are related to accidents.
The very fact that I’m using that word—accident—should be troubling to everyone. By its nature, an accident is preventable. Please understand, I’m not blindly placing blame on those who have tragically lost their lives as a result of an accident; to do so would be both unfair and insensitive. However, we must acknowledge that there are many officers dying because of their own decision-making or lack thereof. We absolutely must reverse this ugly and unsettling trend in line-of-duty deaths.
A Case in Point
Last month, I mentioned a conversation I had with Paul Capittelli, the executive director of California POST wherein he said, “There is too much tolerance for negligent driving in our profession.” I couldn’t help but think of his comment when I read the recent accounts of a Florida officer who was convicted of killing a pedestrian while driving more than 90 mph in his patrol car while headed home.
Testimony in the trial indicated that he regularly drove home at more than 90 mph at the end of his shift. There was also clear evidence that he routinely drove at high speeds without adequate reason. In passing sentence, the judge made a scathing statement that should ring in the ears of every law enforcement officer: “We gave you a car, a badge and a gun, and that was to protect and defend the citizens,” she said, “not to continue with a penchant for a lead foot.”
In a case like this, there’s more than enough blame to go around. It’s difficult to believe that others were unaware of his high-speed habits. Could this have been prevented if he had been held accountable by benching him for several days without pay? In this case, we’ll never know. A woman is dead, an officer’s career is over, and the public has been reminded that cops sometimes do stupid things.
Some might wonder why I used the above example in an editorial about line-of-duty deaths. It’s because this was a trial, so the facts had to come out in all their ugly detail. Unfortunately, we tend to be slow to acknowledge the role that high speed plays in so many police tragedies. Too often, we mitigate actions by using phrases like “responding to a call for assistance” or “pursuing a traffic violator,” when the truth may be much more painful: the officer was driving too fast and someone (often the officer) paid with their life.
How do we change this situation? First and foremost, we must hold ourselves accountable for our own actions and the actions of those around us. Yes, that’s right—the actions of those around us. We must challenge others when we see actions that are out of line. Going without a eat belt or failing to wear body armor is as reckless as driving 100 mph while going home. We need to make doing the right thing, in the right way so common and so expected that deviance from that course of action is unacceptable to everyone. In other words, safety is the norm. Safe policing does not have to be an oxymoron.
By now, I hope you have become aware of our Below 100 effort—an initiative to drive down the number of officer deaths by focusing on five key areas:
• Wear your belt.
• Wear your vest.
• Watch your speed.
• WIN—What’s Important Now?
• Remember: Complacency Kills!
Some may question the timing of an effort like this when the trend seems to be going the other direction. This isn’t about some catch phrase or marketing campaign. This is about saving lives of police officers. Good cops are dying unnecessarily, and I absolutely believe we can reverse this trend and drive the number of officer deaths down to historic lows. But this won’t just happen, and this is where we have to get real. For too long, we’ve simply looked retrospectively at the numbers, mourned our losses and then continued onward. Enough!
A brilliant trainer and friend, Gordon Graham has often said, “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.” We know that by addressing key areas we can prevent officer deaths. As for Below 100, it’s not a matter of if but when we get this number down to double digits. Let’s all start now and make a difference. The life you save may be your own. —Dale Stockton, Editor in chief