Below 100: A reality check on officer safety

Police culture has a history of resisting change and sadly, officers have died as a result of falling into a pattern of behavior facilitated by department culture


There’s a different conversation that’s taking place around the country regarding officer safety and it’s being driven by Below 100, a commonsense training program to reduce line of duty death and injury that focuses on areas under an officer’s control.

Consider those last few words for a moment: areas under an officer’s control. It is this perspective that has made Below 100’s approach so different from other training philosophies or programs.

Until recently, most discussions about officer safety centered on suspect actions and tactics designed to thwart the attack of an assailant. It is not that these are without merit. They’re actually very important and should continue to be part of officer safety training. However, for at least the last 20 years we’ve been so focused on the bad guy that we often ignored the elephant in the room: culpability on the part of the officers who have lost their lives.

When the concept of Below 100 was first coming together, I found the evidence and magnitude of preventable losses to be so compelling that I assumed there must be an existing effort underway to address issues like seatbelt use, wearing body armor, speed, situational awareness and complacency. Although there were initiatives or training courses that addressed parts of the problem, there really wasn’t an overarching, comprehensive approach to tackle the thorny issue of addressing officer responsibility.

In other words, no one had effectively said, “Look what we are doing to ourselves. We have to change this.”

The human tendency to blame others (the bad guys) for our losses rather than look at our own shortcomings had caused a degree of deadly ignorance.

Control what is under your control
Don’t hear the wrong thing. I know full well that bad guys kill good cops — we need look no further than Dallas and Baton Rouge to be reminded of that fact.

However, I also know that after reading more than 5,000 line-of-duty death summaries going back to 1980 we, as a profession, have long failed to address areas that are squarely under our control, areas that have little to do with an armed assailant.

Consider this, which of these do you have more control over:

  1. A determined assailant who is willing to set up an ambush and die trying to kill an officer?
  2. Actions and decisions that you make in regard to use of safety equipment, the way you drive and how you handle a call?

During 18 of the last 20 years, more officers have died in vehicle-related incidents than have been killed by assailant gunfire. Data from an extensive NHTSA review shows that half of fatal police crashes are single-vehicle crashes. The primary collision factor is overwhelmingly driving too fast for conditions.

Just as troubling is the fact that approximately half of all police officers choose to operate their vehicles while not wearing their seatbelts. This has cost hundreds of lives and destroyed thousands of careers due to incapacitating and career-ending injuries.

Excessive speed, single-vehicle crashes and failing to wear a seatbelt make it very difficult to lay the blame at the feet of the bad guy. This one is on us. And it’s definitely up to us to change it.

A quick review
Below 100 is comprised of five very straightforward tenets:

  1. Wear your seatbelt.
  2. Wear your vest.
  3. Watch your speed.
  4. WIN: What’s Important Now?
  5. Remember: Complacency Kills! 

Pretty simple, right? Yes, but they’re definitely not easy. Simple to understand does not equate to being easy to make happen. Law enforcement culture has a long and storied history of resisting change and tragically, many officers have died as a direct result of falling into a pattern of behavior that was facilitated by department culture.

How to make a difference
Vehicle-related deaths continue to be the leading cause of death, despite a spike in gunfire deaths during the first half of 2016. This is an area where we can definitely improve and it’s time for everyone who wears a badge to take substantive steps to increase officer safety through improved vehicle safety.

Seatbelts should be a given, speed awareness is critical and officers need to wear reflective gear when investigating roadway incidents or directing traffic. We lose far too many officers to single-vehicle crashes where speed is the primary collision factor. These events do not make the headlines like an ambush slaying, but they are just as deadly, far more prevalent and an area that we can absolutely change.

Despite a recent increase in unprovoked attacks, gunfire deaths remain relatively low when compared with a few years ago. However, assaults and unprovoked attacks remain frequent.

There is little doubt that the level of hostility to law enforcement remains high and it’s definitely time for vigilance. Body armor works, but only when it is worn.

Improved tactics are paying off, but complacency can turn any situation deadly in an instant. The ability to self- or buddy-treat gunfire wounds is making a huge difference in saving lives. Every officer should carry a tourniquet and know how to use it.

Officers should consider using a passenger-side approach during traffic stops. Continually use contact and cover techniques when working with another officer.

Seventeen officers died in 2015 as a result of duty-related heart attacks. This is not an “old guy” problem. The youngest was 23, another was 26 and eight of the fallen officers were in their 40s. Heart attacks have consistently been the third leading cause of line of duty death for police officers.

It’s time to acknowledge this deadly trend and to become proactive. No one has more control over your health than you. At a minimum, know your blood pressure, your cholesterol levels, your body mass index and your family history—then do something about it!

Below 100 takes the position that it is the responsibility of every person wearing a badge, regardless of rank or assignment, to take individual and collective responsibility for officer safety. This includes having the courage to talk to another officer about the five tenets outlined above.

Going into dangerous situations without adequate cover or engaging too quickly has been the story behind many police losses. If you know an officer who tends to push the envelope or take unnecessary chances, take the time to tell them that you care and that their family and department needs them.

Point out that they’re actually endangering others who may have to come to their rescue. Confronting a fellow officer is never easy, but it’s far better than going to their funeral. Don’t wait because you may not get a second chance. Ignored behavior is condoned behavior.

Honor the fallen
None of the officers we have lost thought their final tour of duty would take their life. For many, their deaths could easily have been prevented. It is clear that we can dramatically improve officer safety by simply exercising common sense. That’s the operational principle of Below 100. Every LODD should be reviewed by trainers, especially FTOs, and information gleaned should be shared with others and at briefing. We must honor the fallen by training the living. They would want nothing less from us. Remember, the life you save may be your own. For more information on Below 100, check out www.Below100.org.

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