Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Safety is job one

A major news story this past week has been the 2007 spike in the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. As of last week, 186 police officers had died, compared to 145 in 2006. Excluding 9/11, 2007 will be the highest year since 1989.

Hopefully the surge in 2007 is an anomoly. I started my career at the Lincoln Police Department in 1974, the deadliest year ever for police officers--277 killed in the line of duty. Since that time, there has been a dramatic decrease in line-of-duty deaths. Adjusted for the increased number of law enforcement officers, the long term decline is even greater.

There are a number of reasons for this, in my opinion. Personal body armor would certainly be one of those. Better policy (such as mandatory handcuffing of prisoners) is another. But in my view, the most important factor has been dramatically better tactics and training. As an example, every police officer in the United States knows the proper way of making a high-risk stopped of a vehicle containing a suspect who may be armed. This method simply did not exist in the summer of 1974, when running up the the driver's door and jerking it open was the order of the day. Similar improvements in tactics and training have impacted prisoner searches, transports, alarm responses, field contacts, and a myriad of other police activities.

There is an interesting and often overlooked statistic in the officers killed data: more officers killed in the line of duty died in traffic collisions than in any other manner. Of the 186 deaths as of December 26, 81 were traffic collisions, and 69 were shootings.

I can't find the source right now (maybe a reader with more time or expertise here can help me), but I am certain I recently saw a comparative graph of civilian an police traffic fatalities per million miles driven. Over the past 40 years, civilian traffic fatalities have fallen like a rock in the United States. Better roadway engineering and automotive engineering--things like crash barriers, reflective roadway markings, seat belts, airbags, anti-lock brakes, and so forth--are responsible. But for police officers, the line is flat. The declining rate of fatal traffic accidents has not impacted police traffic deaths.

My theory is that the failure of police traffic deaths to follow the downward track of civilian fatalities has do to with the far greater burden of dealing with the technology of the patrol car. In 1974, the '72 Plymouth Fury I was assigned had a radio with a knob and 4 buttons. It also had two toggle switches, one for the red lights, one for the siren. That was about the extent of it. Today, your radio has a virtually unlimited number of talk groups, and you can't function without a cell phone. You're mobile data computer is vital, you might have a mobile video system, a moving radar set-up, and a GPS. The very things that have helped improve officer safety in some ways--instant communication and database queries, for instance--makes for more distracted driving and greater exposure to traffic risk.

Three of the five Lincoln Police Officers killed in the line of duty during our history died in traffic collisions: Charles Hall, Frank Leyden, and George Welter. It is simply the biggest risk officers face. Many police officers are committed to reducing their risk of felonious assault. They wear their armor, replace it at five years, they look for tactical training opportunities, and they practice what they have learned. We need to be equally committed to taking steps that will protect us from the greater risk of fatal traffic collisions.

Slow down. Wear your traffic vest. Stop texting. Minimize talking on the cell phone while driving. Pull over if you need to type anything longer than a plate number on a mobile data computer. Keep you seat belt low and tight, your gear out of the airbag deployment zone, your eyes moving, your mirrors adjusted, your windshield clear, and your bladder empty. And by all means, refrain from listening the that certain genre of music while trying to negotiate the mean streets.

My number one wish for 2008: a safe year for our police officers.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

I got a brief peek inside the cockpit of one of your Crown Vics recently, just through the driver's door, during a nice, friendly contact with one of your Officers. There was certainly a bunch of gear to keep straight in there! It was tempting to beg a longer look, but being late afternoon, they naturally had another call waiting.

How many of those traffic deaths were being struck by a vehicle while outside the cruiser (standing by another vehicle during a traffic stop, for example), or are those categorized separately? How many of those on-foot impacts were intentional, and how many were just negligence by the driver? I couldn't readily find that info either, but I'll try again later.

Also, shootings and body armor - I don't know what LPDs policy is on this, but some departments, while requiring the use of body armor on duty, do not require body armor on the target range.

Mr. Wilson said...

Yours is an interesting hypothesis. However I think it doesn't give enough weight to the fact that all vehicles have more distracting features today than 40 years ago, and that drivers have all sorts of new ways to take their minds off the road. At least we don't have to worry so much about kids jumping around in the car. I was also going to note that your hypothesis ignores the likelihood that officers will tend to be driving faster than other drivers, but after some consideration I think that might not be such a big factor. I don't suppose the data include any information about an officer's speed relative to the surrounding traffic and/or the posted speed limit, do they?

Is it standard for police departments to have strict policies restricting officers' interaction with distracting devices while driving? What are LPD's policies? What would happen to an officer if Joe Public videotaped him unnecessarily "driving while distracted", putting himself and other drivers at risk?

And here's the big question: Should state and city legislation restricting drivers' distractions include police officers? (Excluding, of course, those situations in which public safety demands the restrictions be lifted.)

Anonymous said...

I think more time is spent hitting an MDT to get it to work than typing on it.

Anonymous said...

As a bar owner downtown, I am sure that traffic accidents do play a large role in the death of officers. I am curious, however, as to why there was not a larger presence of officers in the downtown area on New Year's Eve. I didn't see the normal bike officers & it seemed that as the fights began to break out it took longer than usual to get officers to handle them. I watched as officers waded into the melee & quickly became surrounded. I would think that more officers on a large drinking night would be safer for both the officers & the citizens.

Tom Casady said...

Mr. Wilson:

Our policy on mobile data computers says:

"The driver shall not operate mobile data computer while the police vehicle is in motion, except that single key operations, such as function keys, may be used. The vehicle shall be stopped before the driver performs other
keystroke operations and entries."

We have no policy on cell phones, and using the radio while driving is critical to doing your job.

I still think the increased number and complexity of distractions in a patrol car dwarfs my personal vehicle.

I don't know about a State law. I suppose if we ever have one limiting cell phone use while in motion, it ought to apply to police officers and public alike. Cell phones shouldn't be used for critical communication in a patrol car.

Tom Casady said...

Bar owner:

We were busy. A flurry of fights, disturbances, and assaults kept the Center Team away from it's usual appointed rounds at bar break. The rest of the city needs the police on occasion, too, which is why I find it so frustrating that we must commit so many resources to babysitting the drunks at bar break.

Surely you've heard of the City's budget crisis, caused by taxpayers howling at any mention of the teensiest increase in cost of government. Your tax dollars fund the smallest police force per capita in Nebraska, and the 181st smallest of the 194 cities in Nebraska and all surrounding states. We're right in between Indianola, Iowa and Liberty, Missouri--and the only city of 200,000 or better in the bottom half.

When you fund a small police department, you've got to live with the fact that we can't be everywhere.

Anonymous said...

Chief, I appreciate your response to the Bar Owner, and commend you for it's tact and message. When I first read that, I was angered that my tax dollars aren't meeting his expectations...and wondered how I could further put out the word that the monkeys in the downtown zoo apparently have the keys! I'd like to suggest to the bar owner that a little less profit in his pocket is in order, either as a result of less over serving his patrons, or possibly paying for solutions to the problems his business helps generates. Before you start to say it was some other bar, I'll tell you that any seller of alcohol in the downtown area is responsible for the actions of all of them-the same way every cop is responsible for the actions of one bad cop. It's a good thing he can find someone to give him their money, because he won't be getting any of mine.

Anonymous said...

Maybe next New Year's Eve you could use one of these nifty LTL devices to handle the unruliest of the bar break crowd, but it's probably not in the budget.

Anonymous said...

And despite all the "new training and tactics" geared around officer safety - there isn't a week that goes by that I don't see a NSP Trooper on I-80 (during my daily commute) that has someone pulled over, and the driver is sitting in the car w/ the trooper while he's getting his citation / warning etc.

I thought that was as big a no-no as cuffing a subject in the front...

Tom Casady said...

Anonymous 8:56-

Put that on my Christmas list, will you?

Gun Nut said...

Chief,
It has been almost one year since the Concealed Carry permits have been issued. Do you have any statistics for arrests of permit holders? In Lincoln and across the state?

Current LPD Officer said...

To the bar Owner:
As a current LPD officer, I wonder, what makes you think you are entitled to the extra bike patrol officers. You receive extra patrol officers, sometimes as many as 6, and police presence on every weekend throughout the year to keep your establishment safe and making money. There is nowhere else in the city where any business, home, or neighborhood gets anywhere near the attention that your business area does. The rest of the city is responsible for a much greater amount of tax revenues than your business yet the downtown area requires much more of the focused attention than any other part of the city. While you had to wait for LPD to respond on New Years to handle the problems near your establishment, the rest of the city was being covered by a understaffed department that keeps this city safe. LPD works very hard at keeping EVERYONE safe regardless if you have some responsibility in creating a lot of problems or not.

I do not have the figures but I believe a compliation of facts and figures would show that your business is much more cost than revenue for taxpayers. The cost of preventing chaos in your area is high. While you do contribute to the economy and tax revenue I hardly think anyone would think, being shown the figures, that you were given any less service than any other taxpayer.

Take a big look at the whole and don't forgot the rest of the taxpayers who fund most of the city yet do not get near the attention that you do.

As you described officers go into very dangerous situations to prevent things from excalating and from people getting injured. Officers do this sometimes at a ratio of 100/2. Some would call that stupid some call that bravery. Either way officers do it because they care about the public and because it is there duty.

As always LPD works extremely hard with limited personnel to provide the entire city with a safe place to live and work. Thanks to the majority of the rest of the city who were very understanding on New Years.

Tom Casady said...

Gun Nut:

By my count, there are 423 Lancaster County residents with concealed carry permits. This is only about 20% of what we were estimating in the first year, so the numbers are low.

Of those, 28 individuals were cited for something or another in 2007. These were all traffic violations, except for one Impersonating a Police Officer (found not guilty at trial), and one Child Abuse (still pending.)

It looks like five of the traffic citations were for multiple counts (speeding, plus no insurance, improper registration, or no seat belt.)

I am also aware of one other case here in Lancaster County where an Omaha-area resident with a concealed carry permit (and carrying) was arrested for DWI following a traffic accident. It wasn't our case, though, it belonged to the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office.

I have no idea what has happened State-wide, and I doubt if there is any source for that data.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information on the concealed carry permits Chief.
Gun Nut

Copstar said...

Chief,

My wish for 2008 is more cops.

Anonymous said...

When you see cops downtown facing down a crowd and out numbered 200 to one just remember, Hero's aren't born, they are cornered.

Anonymous said...

Hold the pickles hold the lettuce downtown bars dont upset us only let us know and we will have it your way.

Sing this ditty to the melody of the old Mcdinalds song about the big mac each time you cite a bar owner for a violation. bbrk

Anonymous said...

I was driving down 13th street a week ago and saw a police officer walking from his car to a house in 11 degree weather with no hat, no gloves, no coat, I guess he just wanted to catch a cold?

Anonymous said...

Annon 1:22,

I didn't know Officer Brodd was back on the street already. That guy never wears a coat.

Bar Owner said...

I'm sorry, I guess we, as barowners, don't pay taxes. While it is true that people LEGALLY drink at are establishments & that we try to keep people from being overserved, it certainly doesn't help that on New Year's Eve the team that patrols the downtown had only four officers on. I got that number from one of the many frustrated cops working that night.

Tom Casady said...

bar owner:

You'll get absolutely no argument on that point from me.

May have to git while it's good said...

Every team in the department was short handed on New Year's Eve night as we are nearly every night. Maybe some people will realize that LPD is VERY under staffed and get some more cops before it's too late and we are over whelmed.

What am I saying? That would mean someone with common sense would have to be in charge.... we're all doomed.