Officer deaths are not a part of our business, but training is

By Travis Yates, PoliceOne columnist
Related: Why did so many die in accidents last year?

I pull up the Officer Down Memorial Page almost every day. I do it for myriad reasons, and each time I do, a flow of emotions goes through my head. The primary reason I do it is to bring myself back to reality.

As I go about my day I suffer from the same things that many of you suffer from. I actually sometimes believe that my worries and concerns are a big deal. I think it matters that this officer did this or that politician thinks that. In the big picture reality, those worries and concerns are not very important. I may be getting a paycheck to deal with some of those issues, but it is awful silly to spend energy on things that mean so little to officers as a whole.

The reality is this: Officers are dying in traffic-related incidents at an alarming rate -- three just died in one day. On October 19th, Coahoma County (Mississippi) Deputy Jerry Hudgins died in a vehicle collision while responding to a traffic accident. His car left the roadway and struck a tree. On the same day, Stafford County (Virginia) Deputy Jason Mooney died while responding to another collision. His vehicle hydroplaned and left the roadway. This 24-year-old Marine Corp Veteran survived a tour during the War on Terror but died in a patrol car driving down the road. Finally, Texas Officer Dale Clint Sherrill died when he was hit by a pickup truck responding to a call.

Am I the only one who is angry that these heroes will no longer come home to their families because of a traffic collision?  Where is the outrage?  Where is the commitment to training?  It makes me angry and it makes me passionate.

Have these incidents become a part of doing business in our profession?  Are we giving our officers the training they need to do their jobs safely?  The protection of our officers must be the primary mission of our leaders in law enforcement today. Are our leaders worried about what is important?

These deaths are not a part of doing business.

If you are reading this and it makes you feel uncomfortable then good!  It means you care and it means you are going to do your part to reverse the senseless deaths of law enforcement officers.

Your part is easy. Give your officers the time and resources to get training in the core critical skills on a regular basis. If you are asking yourself what those skills are then simply read the Officer Down Memorial Page once in a while. The future will mirror the past if we don’t make the decision to change today. Regular training with firearms, vehicles, traffic stops, use of force and defensive tactics are a must.

The Seattle Police Department has taken active steps to protect the safety of their officers. Their four-day, mandatory, department-conducted Street Skills Class trains each of their officers on activities that are done infrequently, but represent a high risk to their safety and survival. Classes such as pursuit driving and shooting tactics represent just a few of the activities that the leadership at Seattle Police Department has committed time and resources to giving to their officers.

This block training concept to training is becoming more popular and is an answer to many of the cries of departments that feel staffing prevents their ability to train their officers on a regular basis. The Broken Arrow Police Department conducts yearly training for each one of their officers and like Seattle, they focus on “high risk-low frequency” events that their officers conduct.

According to Sergeant John Zoller, “It really makes sense for us. We pull our officers from their regular assignments for one week in the year and each day they attend various training classes. It gives us the ability to plan for the absence of those officers. It’s no different than a week of vacation. It is all about priorities for us.”

Regular training in these activities is very important. According to risk manager expert Gordon Graham and retired California Highway Patrol Captain, “Complacency is the kiss of death in this business.”

Think about it. Most LE agencies have officers working the streets from the experience of a rookie to a 30 year veteran. What is the baseline for their training?  Is it possible that some of the officers have been taught these core critical skills many years ago, while others may be fresh from the academy? It's probable that many of our officers face these obstacles. When that “high risk-low frequency” event occurs, could there be officers involved that were taught a different way of doing it? 

Law enforcement training changes constantly, and if we don’t give all of our officers these updates, we are on the road to disaster. Not only is it important to bring all of your officers up to date on their training, but we must continue that training because skills such as driving, shooting and defensive tactics are diminished skills. If we don’t train on them regularly, we will lose the ability to retain what we have been taught.

It is time for our law enforcement leaders to decide what business they want to be in.

Will it be the business of excuses or the business of safety?

Update:  October 30, 2007

It's been a week since I woke up and read about two officer deaths and wrote the above comments.  It has been a bad week.  Three more officers lost their lives in traffic collisions.  The latest was
Chief Randy Wells from Kentucky.  You heard it right.  5 Officers dead in traffic collisions in 10 days.  Remember earlier in the year when the national press and administrators made a big deal that firearm deaths were on the rise?  Where is the outrage for this?  I am not diminishing other ways that officers die in the line of duty but how can anyone ignore the prevention aspect that is so blatantly obvious in vehicle related deaths.  Yes, not all of them are preventable but many of them are.

I am spending this week at the ALERT International Conference.  It is the organization for police driver trainers.  There are 108 registered attendees.  There should be 1008!  I have talked to countless instructors that had to spend their own money to be here.  Why are we not focusing on this issue? 

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department made a conscious decision several years ago to attack this issue and it has paid off.  The decision and the resources were not easy.  Three years ago a state of the art driving facility was built and thousands of dollars were spent on their risk management program and driver training program development.  In 2001, someone with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg  Police Department took a risk.  They decided to invest in the safety of their officers.  From 2001 to 2006, collisions were reduced from 11.35 per million miles to 7.06 per million miles driven.  A practical pursuit and emergency training course was implemented in 2006 and the collisions were again reduced to 6.26 per million miles.

It's a novel concept isn't it?  Authorize resources before something bad happens to make your officers safe.  The number one job of a police chief or sheriff is to give their officers a safe environment.  Nothing else is as important as that.  There is not one excuse that makes up for a lack of training in any high risk behavior that officers conduct.   Not only does the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department get that,  but they have saved over a million dollars and countless injuries and possible deaths since they implemented their driver training program in 2001.  It makes so much sense, it should make you mad.  We drive cars every day and vehicle related incidents are killing and injuring officers at a higher rate than anything else.  Why do we have to continue to justify training?  The State of Minnesota has mandated four hours of driver training for every officer every 3 years.  We think that is great but why?  Why doesn't every state require that much and more EVERY YEAR?

None of this makes sense to me.  I don't understand why thousands of Police Chiefs go to the I.A.C.P. Conference but fail to send someone to the ALERT Conference which is dealing with the number 1 killer of law enforcement officers today?  We should all think about these issues and make sure that we are each doing what we can to turn away this troubling epidemic.  Even if it is passing out an article to your fellow officers, there is something we can all do.  Ignorance is no longer an option.

Additional Links:

Officer Deaths Are Not A Part Of Doing Business

Membership Has It's Benefits:  ALERT International

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