A few years ago, I wrote an article titled How we die – the untold story. While I found several patterns in line of duty deaths in regards to driving incidents in that article, one of the most troubling for me then and still today are one vehicle fatalities that involve law enforcement.
Indeed, the first driving fatality of this year involved Fort Bend (TX) Deputy John Norsworthy. Deputy Norsworthy was on his way to back up another officer on a traffic stop when his vehicle left the roadway and struck a tree. He was trapped in the vehicle for almost an hour before he could be rescued and flown to a hospital in Houston. John would die at 39 years old.
A little over a month later, Delray Beach (Fla.) Sergeant Adam Rosenthal would also die when his vehicle left the roadway and struck a tree. Adam was also 39 years old and I identified with him not only because I was the same age but I was with Adam at the 2010 ILEETA Conference in Chicago, Illinois.
Both of these men were heroes before and after they died and they had so much to contribute to their agency, their community and their family. The facts in the previous article never left me and one-vehicle fatalities continue to haunt me.
As I speak to law enforcement groups about driving related incidents, I will often ask this question to the group.
If you get a call tonight and it is a fatality collision involving just one vehicle, what do you think the cause is before you even arrive on the scene?
It doesn’t matter what room, city, state or country I’m in, the answer is always the same: speed.
When we speak about law enforcement deaths, there are some assumptions that have to be made. One of those assumptions is that we don’t always know the intimate details of why one of our own has died in the line of duty. Thanks to our friends at ODMP and NLEOMF we can know the general facts but unless we work for that agency, we probably will never know everything. With that said, a one vehicle collision does not necessarily mean that speed was a factor but I think if we are honest we would admit that it is the case in most of them and for us to attack this issue, some honesty needs to be here.
I have been in law enforcement for close to 19 years with the vast majority of that time on the road at various ranks. Let me be very honest. Excessive Speed is a problem in our profession and it doesn’t matter where I am, I see it and if you are honest, you see it as well.
Does It Make A Difference?
The first fact we must acknowledge is that we drive too fast for conditions way too often. I could never tell anyone that we, as a profession, should never drive in excess of the speed limit to some incidents but let’s think about this.
• When was the last time you drove really fast and you prevented a crime because of your speed?
• When was the last time you drove fast and caught a suspect because of your driving?
The truth is in more instances than we would care to hear about, we have risked our safety only to arrive on a scene with nothing happening or we have driven with excessive speed when in all reality we could have driven the speed limit with the same results. I recently spoke at an agency that has a “100 MPH Club.” They have a set of videos taken from officers that have driven over 100 MPH to scenes and do you know what they see in almost all of the videos? The officer drives well over the speed limit, only to arrive at the call, sit in their car for a while and then walk slowly up to the location. The department’s point is valid. Was the risk in driving really worth it?
After 15 years as an EVOC Instructor, I am still in disbelief at the lack of training our officers receive in driving. While I’m pleased our basic academies have finally figured it out, it is amazing that roadway incidents have been the leading cause of death for 13 straight years, yet most officers in America have not received any training on the issue since that basic academy. That must change and the time has come for the leaders in our organizations to either give their officers the tools they need to be safer behind the wheel or be held accountable for their failure to do the most important task any leader can do. That is to provide training to their employees in the core job functions that create the most risk for officers and after 13 years I think it is time for driving to be a part of that training program.
With that said, it is also important for our trainers to focus on the correct methodology when it comes to EVOC Training. Our officers do need to know what the dynamics of a car will do at high speeds but to focus all of that training on speed while leaving out the decision making component is like playing Russian Roulette with no empty chambers. The decision to violate the traffic code should be taken just as seriously as using deadly force because if it goes wrong, serious injury or death can and will occur.
Along with training should bring a sound policy on the issue and the time has come for us to give clear guidelines to our officers when it comes to speed. While the State may permit an officer to utilize their emergency equipment and violate the speed limit in “general” terms, our departments must give clear, specific guidelines on this issue. We owe it to our officers to give them the safest environment that we can and if that means a policy on speed then it should be done.
Following the death of a 10 year old boy in 2008 from a Dallas Officer driving in excess of the speed limit, Chief David Kunkel introduced a new policy on driving. A Dallas Officer could not drive over the speed limit in any residential neighborhood or school zone and if the call warranted an emergency response, the maximum speed was 20 MPH over the limit. There was also a mandate for officers to stop completely at all intersections. The Policy was not popular with all. One Supervisor exclaimed on a local blog “how the citizens can possibly support us when we can't get to calls fast enough to save lives or to keep burglars, robbers, and others from taking things from them or from harming them.”
That’s when that honesty part comes in I spoke about earlier. Does the speed really make that much difference?
Police Vehicles are currently equipped with the technology to determine how fast the car was travelling prior to a collision but many also have that technology without a collision having to occur. It is called a Global Positioning System (GPS). It is common to use this for call distribution or even to track your teenagers but what about the driving behavior of officers? I know what you may think about this suggestion but the truth is there are methods to utilize this in a fair manner that is designed to keep our officers safe.
The York Regional Police Department is just one agency using this technology in a successful manner. Every time an officer drives over 80 mph, a report is generated and sent to the EVOC Team. That unit is tasked with researching why the officer may have been travelling those speeds and often times they find a valid reason but sometimes they cannot and that report is then sent to the officer’s supervisor for review and counseling.
Has it made a difference? It has in York and what they found is likely what you would find. Most drove within the guidelines but a few were always driving fast without a reason and it was the same ones week after week. Thanks to proactive leadership wanting to provide safety to their agency and technology, the reports of excessive speed have been very low and something else happened. Those burglars and robbers were still being caught and crime was still being fought despite the emphasis on driving safety.
Most of us would never hesitate to speak to our coworkers or subordinates if we observed a tactical mistake but how often do we observe reckless driving or excessive speed when it wasn’t necessary and said something to the officer? I have to admit, I haven’t been perfect in this area but I’ve seen it in action and if done with concern it is appreciated and it is effective. I know this from experience. Many years ago I was driving to work and got out my car and was met by a fellow sergeant. He had been following me to work and he told me that life was too important to risk it for nothing. He reminded me of my wife and children and his gesture has remained with me to this day. That sergeant had courage that day and I would ask you to do the same for someone else.
I have the privilege to train law enforcement professionals across the world. It is a humbling honor and one I will forever be grateful for and it is also an experience that can be painful. That is because the stories of Deputy John Norsworthy and Sergeant Adam Rosenthal must be told. I returned to ILEETA earlier this year but a great trainer, Sergeant Adam Rosenthal, would not be back. I wanted to honor Adam. I knew he would have it no other way so I displayed the photo of his wreck and I began to discuss what a great leader, father and husband he was and that is when I noticed it. Three officers on the front row looked at each other and I sensed some discomfort with them. I soon found out that they were Delray Beach Police Officers and they missed their friend badly and they were sad and we should be as well. You simply cannot replace an Adam Rosenthal or a John Norsworthy.
Since 1999, 43 percent of the officers that have died behind the wheel of the car have done so in single car collisions and this trend remains in 2011. So the question remains...what will you do about it?