With 2012 now behind us, it's only appropriate that we look back and determine what lessons can be learned from the lives lost. Training from tragedy is tough because it can be difficult to be objective when it comes to those we’ve lost. However, we owe it to the fallen to train the living.
Once again, vehicle-related incidents killed more cops than gunfire. Forty-seven officers were gunned down by suspects while 52 officers died as a result of crashes or being struck by vehicles.
I went through all of the summaries provided by our partners at Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP.org) and noted that more than half of the officers were killed while other officers were present. This is noteworthy because many believe officer safety is notably increased when officers patrol together. Although this will always be the subject of debate, here’s what experience has taught me:
1. Complacency often becomes a factor when multiple officers are present. There may be safety in numbers but this doesn't dissuade a desperate or psychotic suspect from attacking an officer.
2. The tactic of contact and cover (C&C) works and has saved many officers. Some of our fallen would have lived if they had only used this simple approach. C&C minimizes the problem of complacency or distraction. The basic premise of C&C is that one officer is primarily responsible for the contact and the second officer ensures the safety of the other officer and the scene.
Some of the officers shot and killed weren't wearing armor and at least three officers would likely have survived their attack if they had been wearing their ballistic vests. One of those who died, Marion County (Ky.) Deputy Anthony Rakes, died after being shot in the chest and abdomen with a handgun. His sheriff later made this comment, "At one point, he was very religious about wearing his vest. At some point in time he got to where he wasn't. That was a choice he made."
Arthur Lopez, Nassau County (N.Y.) Police Department, died after being shot in the chest. Although the agency has a mandatory wear policy, he wasn't wearing his vest. "We did have a must-wear policy for anybody in a uniform, and that did extend to ESU [where Lopez was assigned]," said First Deputy Commissioner Thomas Krumpter. Although failure to wear a vest subjects a cop to discipline, Krumpter acknowledged that no one had been disciplined for not wearing armor.
Here’s the takeaway: Body armor works but only if you wear it. Equally important: Departments must haves a mandatory wear policy for armor that's actually upheld.
At least eight officers died during the service of a warrant or eviction notice. In many of these incidents, other officers were critically injured. This type of police action entails a high degree of risk. It’s important to remember these basics:
1. Have a plan. Take advantage of every bit of information and intelligence known. Make sure this is shared with the rest of the officers involved.
2. Wear your armor, regardless of any expectation of minimal trouble. There's no downside to doing this and the benefits are obvious.
3. Plan for the unknown, in spite of what you know. Check and double check your equipment and safety gear.
4. Prepare for emergencies. If you have people with emergency medical training, have them available and make sure they’re trained to operate in a tactical environment. Carry a tourniquet and know how to use it.
At least three officers were killed by subjects who had been searched and/or handcuffed. Some tips:
1. Never assume that a prisoner has already been searched or is safe to transport, even if they’re coming right out of a custodial facility.
2. Search as if you expect to find something. And when you do find something, search even harder for the second or third weapon.
3. Secure prisoners properly for transport. Unless waist chains are being used, handcuffs in front are seldom a good way to go.
4. Seatbelt them—it limits their ability to move around and it’s the right thing to do.
Several officers died during the course of enforcement contacts with subjects in vehicles. Remember these basics:
1. Traffic stops are never, never routine.
2. Although you know the reason for the stop, the violator may assume something else is involved and feel the need to escape or take offensive action. Be ready for that possibility.
3. As much as you can, choose the stop location to provide a tactically sound and safe environment. Look for lighting advantages and be very aware of the real dangers of traffic—it can be as deadly as the occupants of the car that you’re stopping.
4. Watch for danger indicators like the driver moving around a lot, being slow to pull over and watching a little too intently in the rear view mirror.
5. Whenever possible, consider a passenger-side approach. It works and often gives a better view of the interior of the car and the suspect, as well as providing more protection from traffic.
6. Use the principles of contact and cover. If you have the luxury of having another officer present, make sure that one of you is serving in a cover role. This technique will prevent many of these losses.
We continue to lose way too many officers in situations that were absolutely preventable. Failing to use seat belts and speed are the two areas that are most responsible for these deaths. Here’s what we know with certainty:
1. Seatbelts work but only if you wear them. Unbelievably, some officers still believe the Ninja assassin fairytale and think officer safety is improved by going without a seatbelt. This myth has killed more officers than all the bad guys put together. Did you know that more than 150 cops have died after being ejected from patrols cars since 1980? And thousands more have been seriously injured and crippled.
2. Speed is absolutely deadly to cops: We need a major attitude adjustment in this area. For too long, we’ve heard the old joke, “Why do cops speed? Because they can!” But it’s just not funny anymore. You don’t help anyone if you crash on the way. Worse yet, too many of our collisions occur when officers aren’t even responding to a call. Primary collision factor? Speed.
Our culture has allowed hard-charging officers to regularly push the envelope. Many have paid with their lives. An observation gained from reviewing dozens of these crashes: A disproportionate number that involve another vehicle are the result of other drivers being unaware of the patrol car’s speed and turning into the officer’s path. If you must run hot, use all your emergency equipment, including your headlights and be aware that others may not fully comprehend the speed of your oncoming vehicle.
Learn from Mistakes
We have to review every line-of-duty death and commit to learning from them. Otherwise we’re not honoring the sacrifice of those we’ve lost. Ask: What could have been done differently? What were the warning signs? Could the incident have been predicted and therefore prevented? Take a look back through the losses of this past year by going to ODMP.org. The summaries are sobering and provide insights to the last moments of some of America’s finest.
As you get ready for your next shift, take a moment to check your gear. Take a close look in the mirror. What impression will you make? Does your appearance convey confidence and readiness or complacency and reticence? Finally, remember the tenets of Below 100:
1. Wear your belt.
2. Wear your vest.
3. Watch your speed.
4. W.I.N.—What’s Important Now?
5. Remember: Complacency kills!
The mission of Below 100 is to drive LODDs to an annual loss of less than 100. Make a difference and challenge others when you see them engaged in actions that can lead to serious injury or death. Yes, the conversations are sometimes uncomfortable but they’re nothing like going to a funeral. Don’t suffer the regret and guilt of not having said something that could have prevented a loss.
As we enter 2013, we must strive to change the LE culture to one that embraces both common sense and safety equipment. We know there are officers alive today because they have made the decision to wear their seatbelts, wear their armor and drive at speeds reasonable for the circumstances. We have the evidence in real lives saved to prove it.