Police ambushes and seatbelts: The debate continues

Comments like "I'm afraid of an ambush" and "I may have to exit the car quickly" are by far the biggest reasons used for not wearing seatbelts.


Editor’s Note:

Editor’s Note: On May 28, 2011, Bexar County (Texas) Sergeant Kenneth Vann was gunned down while he sat in his patrol vehicle at a stop light. This incident and the circumstances of it are rare and in this featured article, Captain Travis Yates looks at the issue of ambushes and how they relate to seatbelt usage.

By now you likely know that vehicle related incidents have been the leading cause of death for law enforcement for 13 straight years. I have been very vocal during that time period and in the last few years I have seen an increased focus on the issue throughout law enforcement. What you may not know is that the latest data from NHTSA shows that 42 percent of the officers killed behind the wheel since 2000 were not wearing seatbelts and that number is an increase from the previous ten years. The issue, it seems, is getting worse and on a weekly basis that number is supported by what I am told.

A few weeks ago, I was teaching out of state and an officer came up to me on a break, away from his co-workers. “I’m glad you are talking about this seatbelt issue” he said. “I work nights — I see it every night — seatbelts are not being worn.”

It’s always hard to believe when I hear it but it is that denial that if it continues, will continue to kill officers needlessly and dying while not wearing a seatbelt is a death that doesn’t need to happen.

Why is this happening? Most cops will tell you it’s about the “ambush” and that should be a real concern for us but does it warrant the failure of not wearing a safety device that has proven over and over again to be highly effective?

The Reality of the Ambush
Every police officer in America remembers November 29, 2009. That morning, Sergeant Mark Renninger, Officer Tina Griswold, Officer Greg Richards, and Officer Ronald Owens of the Lakewood (Wash.) Police Department went to a coffee shop. Two of them faced the door and when Maurice Clemmons entered the coffee shop, acknowledged the officers and went to the counter, they would have no reason to think that evil at it’s very core was about to be unleashed and just seconds later all four officers would be brutally murdered.

While not the first ambush-style attack against law enforcement, the Lakewood Incident would spur conversations and training topics that continue today and one of the topics that continue is the reason why officers say they do not wear seatbelts.

“I’m afraid of an ambush” and “I may have to exit the car quickly” are by far the biggest reasons used for not wearing seatbelts. Those are legitimate concerns and I do not diminish them. In fact, we should discuss and train in reference to those concerns.

An ambush attack is a reality in our profession and while most of them occur outside the vehicle, they can and have happened while we are behind the wheel of the car. Due to this fact, seatbelts are not being worn in our profession and the deaths of hundreds of our finest men and women have happened because of that.

Ambush Survival
Some of the finest trainers in the world have documented the dangers and prevention of ambushes but let me say a few things about vehicle style ambushes.

• You Are a Target

Your uniform and your vehicle are targets and we must have awareness when either of these is in play. You may be driving your patrol vehicle but you just got off work or you may be going to lunch from a training day and know this….the evil looking to do you harm doesn’t know that. Condition Yellow is that relaxed alert without a specific threat and while driving it is appropriate to be in that status, we must be ready for a heightened condition.

• Stopped Means High Alert

I often tell others that not wearing a seatbelt for the “ambush” reason is silly because I can’t recall an ambush happening on an officer going 65 mph down the road but the truth is that it does happen when we are not in motion. For that reason, we should not be in a relaxed alert status when we are stopped in a vehicle. We should be alert on everything around us and in particular the vehicles that are around us.

I’ve never liked being “window to window” to another vehicle and if that vehicle has dark tinted windows I will do whatever it takes to not be beside them. When approaching a stop, try to let the cars around you stop first. This will give you an opportunity to position your vehicle away from other cars or with an exit strategy. If you are the first vehicle at a stop light, try to stop several feet short of the intersection. As other cars pull up behind and beside you, you then have an opportunity to move forward away from those cars. While it can happen out of your control, try not to get “boxed” in from all sides while sitting still. Pay attention to all of the cars around you. Is there a vehicle that seems to be trying to get close to you and if so treat them as a threat first and someone needing directions later. While exiting your car may be an option, the most effective is likely driving away from a threat and then engaging.

As professionals and trainers, we have a choice to make. Accept senseless deaths in our profession or get to the root cause of the issue and deal with it. I hope you will choose to deal with it and the only way to deal with it is to talk about the truth and the truth is that ambushes in a vehicle do occur. While it is a rare event we must always be prepared for it but not wearing a seatbelt should not be a part of that preparation.

Seatbelt Removal
We must train officers on tactical seatbelt removal and that training must be ongoing. In times of a stressful event, you will rely on your training and you must build in the muscle memory of a tactical seatbelt removal in that training base. Removing your seatbelt effectively, away from anything that could catch it, must be as natural as drawing your weapon from that latest Level III holster and this can only be accomplished by training.

We reason that by not wearing a seatbelt you can exit the vehicle faster and that is simply not true. The only reason you are exiting the vehicle faster without a seatbelt is that you are not prepared and that preparation can only come with pre-planning and training.

There is a reason you snap your holster instead of leaving it unsnapped because it may be faster to draw. There is a reason you wear a vest when in reality you may be able to maneuver or run faster without it. That reason is that it is safer to wear a vest where your survival rate is much higher in a shooting and you secure your weapon because we know that suspects will attempt to use them on you and we overcome any small concerns we may have in using these safety features through training. Show me a well trained officer and they can draw just as quick with the snaps on as off and the truth is that a well trained and prepared officer can exit their vehicle just as fast with a seatbelt on or off. It is your choice to make.

By not wearing a seatbelt, you are sacrificing the best safety device available to you in preventing what has been the leading cause of death for law enforcement for 13 years in a row. Hundreds of law enforcement officers have been proven wrong and the time has come for this to stop.

Closing
In seminars, I open with a question to the audience. Do you believe that we will ever see a year where our law enforcement line of duty deaths can be zero? I typically get a rookie in the room sheepishly nodding their head yes while the veterans emphatically say no.

The truth is that we will never see that day. Our profession works in a very violent environment and evil with a little knowledge can prevail at times. While we will continue to see ambushes, we must continue to do everything we can to prevent it. Law enforcement is a risky business and we all accept that but we should not sacrifice proven safety devices such as seatbelts in that quest for prevention.

About the author

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.

Contact Travis Yates

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