You’ll never hear a fighter pilot argue against putting a premium on safety measures on a combat mission. Those fliers are about as aggressive a group of warriors as you might meet, but safety is wired into them as much as their lethality in battle.
Yet law enforcement officers — and I’m just as guilty as anyone — uniquely ignore basic safety principles. We do it daily. The argument — specifically to my most recent column but more broadly in common conversation among cops — is that talking about safety first is effectively “neutering our best warriors and demotivating them.”
Tell that to a fighter pilot. Yes, there are myriad differences between the fighter pilots and police officers, but no one can argue that both are not warriors. I contend that you can be both safe, and be a warrior. The good news is that no matter where you are in your organization — from patrol to brass — it’s never too late to begin. Here are five ways to get you started.
1.) Emphasize Driver Training
We change cars — sometimes nightly — with no concern on training. Let me understand this. Roadway-related incidents have been the leading cause of death, injuries, and lawsuits for almost two decades yet we will throw the keys to just about anything with wheels to an officer without considering any type of training.
We would never give an officer a new or different gun without training, and statistically most of us will never shoot that gun in the line of duty.
We drive a car every day and rarely train in the dynamics of that car.
The newest squad cars are as different from any late-model-fill-in-the-blank cruiser as semi-automatic pistols are from revolvers. But because “it’s just a car” we just don’t treat the differences as being serious.
We must place an emphasis on training with the car we operate, just as we train with sidearm, cuffs, and every other tool we use on the job.
2.) Conduct Blended Training
Now that we understand that training is needed, what kind of training is effective?
We’ve thought for years that a blended training — combining skills and decision making — was the most effective. Thanks to California POST we now have research to prove it.
Training that does nothing but build skills will certainly do that but we have to integrate an equally important component: the brain.
No one reads a death notification and says to themselves, “If only the officer knew how to brake a little better.”
It’s not our hands and feet that gets us in trouble but what is between our ears. We must train and we must focus on both skills and decision-making.
3.) Learn the Physiological Effects of Stress
When our heart rate jumps to above 140 beats a minute, our body will adjust. Period.
We have to know what to expect. Emergency response runs — or even the stress of a call you are going to — can cause tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, and a host of other issues.
We can mitigate the effects by doing our combat (autogenic) breathing but ultimately we must know the effects so we can expect them and deal with them.
Read Alexis Artwohl's excellent book Deadly Force Encounters and make yourself familiar with what can happen to us under stress and how we can be safer in the process.
4.) Study Emotional Survival
We must be vigilant to the incidents killing our officers — from ambush attacks to vehicle incidents — but more officers die every year at their own hands than all of the line of duty deaths combined.
Poor health, corruption, and marital issues are a direct consequence of the failure of our profession to prepare our heroes behind the badge for life as cops.
Read Dr. Kevin Gilmartin's excellent book called Emotional Survival and take steps today to survive. This training is important in the basic academy but it is a must throughout our careers.
How about if every agency leader reading this decides to give all of their current officers a day of training a year on this subject? Everything from financial classes to family relation classes will help those behind the badge. Think that might make a difference? I do.
5.) Remember Your Family
I’ve written some difficult and some easy steps to take now in order to be safer. Maybe you've thought, “I don't need any of this. I’ve been fine up until now.”
That may be so, but what if tomorrow you aren’t? What if tomorrow your kids don’t have a dad or your husband doesn’t have a wife anymore?
While it’s true you could spend an entire career ignoring these basic safety principles and be fine, it is also true that many have not been fine. We are a profession that has many lessons taught to us in blood.
For the sake of our family and to honor those before us, please consider learning those lessons.
Think about it: We don’t wear reflective vests because we need to be “covert.” We don’t wear ballistic vests because it’s hot. We don’t wear seatbelts because we want to get out of the car fast — which makes no sense when you’re going 60 mph because the only way you’re coming out of the car at 60 mph is because you’re not wearing your seatbelt.
Many in our profession do all they can to be safe and they do not compromise what we are called to do — they are warriors.
If we pull up to a school and hear gun shots, we run in to stop the violence, giving very little thought to what could happen to us. No one will — or should question that — but if we run 90 mph to a call without wearing a seatbelt, we all should question that.
I submit that if we are going to put our lives at risk then it needs to be worth something. Unfortunately, we all too often ignore some basic principles that can help us be safer.
Pleases consider these tips that I believe can make you safer today. Please consider coming up with those that may directly apply to your agency. Post them around and discuss them.
Let us be as safe as possible so when we are called to be that warrior, we will be here and ready.