How do law enforcement officers die? Most of you are probably thinking you know. Unless you’ve been sleeping for the last decade, you’ve heard it. We’ve all heard it: guns and cars, with collisions leading the way for the past several years. I fear that we have somehow minimized these collisions by calling them “accidents” and throwing our hands in the air as if we can’t do anything. Whatever we are doing, it’s not working. More officers died in 2007 in vehicle collisions than any other year. This despite more agencies adding training, laws changing to curb police pursuits and the safety of cars at an all time high.
What are we doing wrong?
While we know how we die, the question is much more than vehicle collisions. Anyone who has read what I write or especially heard me speak knows that I do not shy away from placing blame square on the shoulders of police chiefs and sheriffs for the failure to train their officers. It’s inexcusable to deny officers training on a regular basis in an area that causes more injuries, deaths and civil litigation than anything else in law enforcement. With that said, there is an untold story. It is a phenomenon I have seen in recent years and one that I have not heard discussed
While it is easy to blame the leaders of an organization have we looked at the actual behavior of the officers? As I travel across the country, I hear a common theme from trainers: “We can’t get our officers to take this seriously.” I must admit that for every story I hear about a department leader not caring, I hear another story about an officer’s apathy. Maybe it has become routine to wreck a car. We think it’s part of doing business, until at least one of our own dies. Maybe that turns into a tragedy or a terrible crash. Maybe all of that is a bunch of crap. If our leaders won’t protect us, maybe we should do what it takes to protect ourselves. We must be accountable for our own actions, and that starts with drilling down to the real reason we are dying.
Each line-of-duty death that occurred in 2007 with the cause listed as a vehicle collision or vehicle pursuit was researched with a variety of factors in mind. Some of the incidents had more information readily available than others. Every effort was made to ensure that the research was as accurate as possible. This was not a scientific study, but regardless, certain patterns did emerge.
Types of collisions
The most troubling number discovered is the amount of one-vehicle collisions involved in officer deaths. Sixty percent of all deadly collisions involved just the police vehicle. While many may believe that a secondary vehicle plays a role in officer deaths, the data simply does not indicate that. Of these one-vehicle collisions, the majority of these incidents involved units running off the roadway and striking objects such as trees, buildings and guardrails.
Years of service
It is absolutely apparent that experience plays an integral key in the safety of officers as it relates to vehicles. Fifty-eight percent of the officers that died had less than five years of service as a law enforcement officer. In fact, 32 percent of the officers had less than 23 months experience, while six officers had just a few months experience.
While trainers often focus on the danger of intersections, bad weather, emergency runs and city, the data clearly did not show these factors as playing a large role on officer deaths. Eleven percent of the deadly collisions occurred in bad weather conditions, with the majority of those listing “hydroplaning” as the cause. Just two collisions listed the vehicles using emergency equipment, and intersection collisions played an even lesser role. Seventy-four percent of the collisions occurred in rural areas where typically less traffic resides.
Actions of officers
One in every five of the officers was responding to assist other officers when the deadly collision occurred. A variety of other responses were listed including domestic disturbances, traffic infractions, medical calls and routine patrol.
Types of law enforcement
While no particular type of law enforcement agency was immune to deadly collisions, 45 percent of the officers killed worked for sheriffs departments while 32 percent worked for municipal agencies and 11 percent worked for the state police. The remainder was represented by the federal government and one constable office.
What does this tell us?
While it is clear that officers with less than five years of experience who work in rural areas may be at the most risk, it is also apparent that no one is immune to a deadly collision. One car collisions where the vehicle left the roadway, responding to a location certainly indicates that speed probably played a role in some of the collisions. The rural area of most of these collisions also is an indicator that speed may be an issue. An officer responding to a location at high speed is possibly the most dangerous activity being done in law enforcement today. Our training must reflect that.
When all of the 2007 officer deaths in collisions are carefully studied, we see patterns and behavior that we as trainers and law enforcement agencies must not ignore. It is not the intention to lay blame on any individual officer. It is important to examine the pattern of officer deaths in an effort to prevent them in the future.
How we train
The lack of experience of those killed in vehicle collisions and the fact that most states train their new officers in driving tells us that training alone in an academy setting may not be enough. Regular training combined with experience is the key. Because high speeds appear to be a major cause, we have to ensure that our officers receive training in this area. The majority of driver-training programs are unable to incorporate high-speeds in their programs. This is typically due to a lack of a facility or fear of training in a dangerous environment. The Texas Department of Public Safety is in the process of revamping its training program to give their recruits a realistic environment with regard to driving. The reality is that law enforcement officers will drive very fast at certain points in their career. Training must come first before the officer conducts this activity on the streets and highways of America.
The mental aspect of driving must be emphasized. In many of the driving deaths, a different decision by the officer may have yielded a different outcome. Training should not always be about driving on a track but also in a classroom discussing the thought process of driving. Driving Simulators can have an even bigger impact on helping officers make the correct decisions during stressful situations.
First and foremost, this article is not about data or stats. It is about the men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their community and nation. They are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. We owe them nothing less than the utmost respect.
I’m not so naïve to think that writing this will be popular or without controversy. These are painful issues, and out of that pain comes emotion. Despite this, this story must be told. We have to tell the thousands of officers that get in their car tonight how we die. Law enforcement is facing nothing short of a crisis of an enormous magnitude and what we as a profession does next to stem this troubling epidemic will be vital to the future safety of our officers. That start is knowing how we die. Only then can we can learn how to survive.
Major Travis Yates is a Commander with the Tulsa (OK) Police Department. His Seminars in Risk Management & Officer Safety have been taught across the United States & Canada. Major Yates has a Master of Science Degree in Criminal Justice and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy. He is the Director of Training for SAFETAC Training and the Director of Ten-Four Ministries, dedicated to providing practical and spiritual support to the law enforcement community.