Nobody wants to talk about officer deaths by looking at bar graphs and statistics. Statistics can feel like a cold and inhuman way to analyze the tragic reality of the profession. But doing it can reveal part of the picture that isn’t always acknowledged, the “elephant in the room” that is too often ignored.
In 2006, 50.6% of all officer deaths were vehicle related. This year, the statistic holds steady at 48%. Many of these fatal crashes occurred when the officers were using emergency equipment, and not surprisingly, the majority occurred en route to a call while driving at a high speed. That’s right: Code calls.
“Everybody talks about the danger of pursuits, but over the years, actually about 5% of officers killed in vehicle-related accidents have been killed in pursuits,” said risk management expert Steve Ashley.
Ashley argues that, when it comes to officers’ roadway deaths, pursuits are not the primary problem.
“In risk management, there is a relationship between frequency and severity,” he said. “Certain things happen all the time and aren’t that big a deal, and certain things, when they do happen, are really bad.
There tends to be an inverse relationship between the two (e.g., a lot of fender-benders and few fatalities) that rings true in everyday life. For instance, how many times do you walk across the bedroom in the dark, as opposed to how many times you stub your toe?
Let’s compare routine driving, emergency response and pursuit driving: A lot of crashes occur during routine driving, but they tend to be low in severity. Conversely, officer crashes during pursuits aren’t very frequent, but when they happen, they are frequently catastrophic.
But emergency response has the worst of both worlds: They are fairly frequent, and when they happen they tend to be more severe.
“More police officers are involved in more serious crashes in emergency response than there are in pursuit,” Ashley said, noting that pursuit crashes generally involve the suspect running into somebody or something.
So Osama bin Laden walks into a school zone. . .
"Driving fast is part of our profession, and I am not advocating doing away with that,” said driving trainer expert Travis Yates, ““But we have to be very cautious when it happens.”
Yates said he believes that most driving mistakes don't occur with our feet, but rather with our head. “The mental aspect of driving is the key to our safety,” he said. “We must make good decisions and the decision to run code or not must not be taken lightly."
Most policies aren’t specific about when to run lights and siren, which makes sense, Yates said, “because every call is different and if we specified to run code on every call, much of it would be unnecessary and place officers and citizens in danger for no reason.”
“While the use of lights and siren are always dictated by department policy and state law, their actual use is usually conducted by the culture of the individual department,” he said.
That means one agency may use them to respond quickly to a traffic wreck while another agency may only use them to respond to citizens or officers whose lives are in imminent danger, such as a shooting-in-progress or a bank robbery.
Gordon Graham is a risk management expert and 30-year veteran of California law enforcement. “In everything we do in law enforcement, there’s a risk benefit analysis,” he said. “What’s the known risk? And what’s the benefit?”
Put it this way, he said: “At 3 AM on the freeway, I don’t have a problem with cops chasing a low-level misdemeanor suspect. At 2 PM in a school zone, I would have a problem chasing a low-level misdemeanor suspect….but I wouldn’t have a problem chasing Osama bin Laden.”
The above scenario would qualify as a risk benefit.
The same holds true for any response. There is a difference between an alarm call and an alarm call where a neighbor hears screaming inside the home. Most policies say that lights and siren can be used to preserve life and property.
The gray area
Safety tips for emergency response driving:
"It’s faster to get to a scene by not using my lights.”
“Many officers don’t like to talk about the fast response to locations without lights and siren,” said Yates. “But it is a reality in our profession."
“While officers don't have to put up with the strange reactions by citizens when they see emergency lights and siren on, excessive speed without using the equipment that exempts officers from obeying traffic laws is not only potentially liable for the officer but is extremely dangerous.”
Back in Arizona, Street Survival seminar instructor Dave Smith called “hauling ass” without a siren “Code 2 ½.” Needless to say, Code 2 ½ wasn’t exactly an official classification, and wouldn’t win you many points with a judge.
At the end of the day, Yates believes that there is not a lot of time saved by driving in excess of the speed limit to a call, and in most cases, the criminal activity is over when officers arrive.
“There’s this mindset that we’ve got to get there right away,” Graham said. “But if you hold that in balance with taking your time and getting there, then maybe you can actually save lives by having fewer accidents.”
What can be done?
There are two kinds of driver training, and both are critical – but for different reasons. Classroom training is cognitive, addressing things like policies and legal issues. That’s the “when to” and the “who to”, and is aimed at liability reduction. Range training develops officers’ motor skills, teaching them — and allowing them to practice — good defensive driving techniques. That’s the “how to," and that’s to enhance officer safety.
Departments have tried for years to manage the risks of motor vehicle operations, but the focus has tended to be on liability reduction, rather than officer safety, Ashley said.
“If I’m concerned with liability, I’ll sit officers in a classroom and teach them things like when to pursue, when not to pursue, how fast to go, when to stop a pursuit — decision-making stuff,” Ashley said.
Departments that have done this type of training have had an impact on their liability exposure, but they’ve also had an impact on reduction of injury to officers, because the more training you do, the better you’ll be at your job — an “unintended consequence of well-intentioned actions” as Florida police trainer Ken Murray put it. In this case, the well-intentioned action (reducing liability) had a positive consequence (increased officer safety).
But in order to reduce fatalities, officers also need more in-car training, which can be a huge strain on resources.
“Driver training is a very difficult training to try to conduct,” Ashley said. “How many agencies have extra cars, and an open, unused, safe area in which they can conduct training?
“You can put them in a classroom, but they won’t get the practice they need. You really need both pieces.”
It is human nature to ignore things that don’t have immediate impact, and police departments are no different. There are plenty of reasons departments give for not putting a greater emphasis on driver training – lack of funding, the “it hasn’t happened here” mentality.
But the fact is, if you drive enough miles, you’re going to crash. You can’t avoid all risk.
Managing risk is about avoiding the things you can avoid and taking measures to reduce the negative impact of things you can’t. Training and policy are put in place to reduce the number of crashes and to reduce the degree of injury.
Ashley once talked to a chief who didn’t use stop sticks, and asked him why.
“They don’t stop pursuits,” the chief said.
“Yeah, but they slow the guy down.”
This drives home the point that in risk management, there are no big answers - just a lot of little ones.
Ashley always asks his classes, “How do you eat an elephant?”
One bite at a time, of course; Policy is one little bite, and training is another.