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Deadly Routine

By Dave Smith and Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith
Instructors of the Street Survival Seminar

“Routine.” The killer of cops.

It lulls us, comforts us about the threats of the world, nurtures trust in all things and at around ten years, it kills a disproportionate number of our brothers and sisters in law enforcement.

According to Uniform Crime Statistics, the average crime fighter killed in the United States has ten years of experience. Not a rookie or a wizened elder, but one right in the middle of their career.

Interestingly, cops are not the only folks for whom the 10-year mark is an issue. Look at military pilots. The accident profile for military pilots spikes at 2500 hours of flight time. At 250 hours per year average that comes to…that's right, ten years.

There are so many police trainers and administrators who think if we purge the word "routine" from our vocabulary we automatically solve the problem. "Nothing is routine!" is the phrase we have been chided with over and over again since we began teaching officer safety and survival years ago, and frankly we’re tired of hearing it.

The reality is, minor traffic offense stops are routine. You can call them anything you want, like "unknown risk" or "low risk," but the name doesn't alter the unconscious changes that happen inside our minds when we (and our co-workers) make hundreds of uneventful traffic stops over several years.

The fact is, words and phrases don't kill cops. We need to realize that mundane daily activities done repeatedly year in and year out make the risk involved more invisible and when that happens, we tend to do one of two things in response:

We either become complacent to the risks of those activities or we increase our risk-taking behavior to satisfy our innate need for risk. The two phenomena go hand in hand.

Complacency and added risk-taking behavior are directly attributable to a large percentage of officers killed not just by assault but also by accidental death, which currently rivals felonious assault as the #1 killer of American cops.

We recall the day that Dave was arguing with another highway patrol trainer about the habit their officers had of allowing people to sit in the front seat of their patrol cars with them in spite of the fact that at that time Arizona DPS had lost two officers, five miles apart, killed by the same dirtbag sitting in the officers’ front seats.

The other trainer was adamant that their officers wouldn't make that same mistake since the tragedy had happened only nine years earlier and was still fresh in everyone’s mind.

As they continued their discussion in a two-man unit, they came around a curve on I-17 and saw one of their own officers sitting in his patrol unit with an offender right next to him in the front seat!

We also need to remember that while traffic stops tend to be the most routine activity we talk about in officer survival training, anything can become “routine” if it is done over and over and over again and nothing occurs to stimulate your sense that each time you do that activity it is a novel event filled with risk and ambiguity (translate: dangerous).

Let’s face it, danger, risk and uncertainty are a few of the key components that makes law enforcement attractive to those of us who enter it. You became a crime fighter because you like the rush of excitement it brings. We each have not only a certain tolerance for risk, but a true need for it!

Risk analysts call this our “Risk Thermostat,” a concept originally introduced into the into the Street Survival Seminar in 2003. It’s a fact that we each adjust our behaviors to keep our exposure to risk at the level we need.

In other words, if routine makes the risks present in our activities invisible, we will inevitably start taking additional risks. Whether it is failing to wait for backup or busting red lights without stopping, the simple truth is: the more risks taken, the greater chance of an "accident" occurring to the risk taker.

We’re not saying that cops want to have an accident or assault occur, but we seek to be present in a variety of risky situations or we wouldn't be in law enforcement. After all, we drive toward the shots fired, not away from them!

Take a look at a classic risk for all people, not just cops: heart attacks. We’ve found that nothing motivates the majority of officers to start fitness programs on their own quite like a fellow officer falling victim to a heart attack or some other potentially preventable medical condition.

In fact, the most fanatic exercisers are often heart attack survivors for whom the risk has taken shape into an "accident" in their lives and they become truly motivated.

The same cure tends to work for complacency and improperly set “Risk Thermostats.” Nothing improves someone’s officer safety skills quite like having an assailant try to seriously injure or kill you!

The problem with that type of motivation is that you risk injury and death in the real world waiting for something to motivate you to improve your skills, IE: "adjust" your “Risk Thermostat.”

The better choice is to train for the “Risk Thermostat” using a multi-prong approach.

First, departments need realistic training that puts officers in potentially confrontational-- but “routine”--settings such as traffic stops where they have to win deadly encounters. Paintballs, lasers, Simunition® and the many other tools available today can make training powerful and effective in eliminating complacency and reinforcing the risks present in the real world.

Second, the use of case studies of officers surviving assaults and accidents in "routine" settings during classroom sessions, allowing reflection of the variables present in every call that can injure and kill. In the Street Survival Seminar we focus on the mindset necessary for officers to examine and adjust their own “Risk Thermostat.”

Whether you’re assigned to patrol, investigations or corrections, it’s time to give up the notion that changing the names of our activities from "routine" to something else changes their nature.

The statistics say it is time to instill training that prevents officer complacency and improper risk-taking regardless of time on the job. It’s not just the training officer's or your supervisor's job, it is your job to prepare YOU to be at your peak, regardless of the call you’re on or the number of years you have been answering that same alarm at that same old store or searching the same type of bad guy in the same intake room for the same agency you’ve been with for…well, at least 10 years.

Your safety, your survival, your ability to WIN is up to you!


For more crucial information on officer safety and survival, check out the 2007 Street Survival Seminar schedule and attend at a location near you.

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