During the cold wintry months of 2005, I was investigating a traffic crash on an ice-covered interstate. I was standing alongside the driver’s side door of a vehicle involved in the accident, which positioned me next to the busy lane of traffic. While I gathered driver information, a vehicle careened out of control and struck me, sending me spiraling through the air. I landed on the cold, hard surface of the road. It took approximately three months of rehabilitation before I could return to duty.
Of course, law enforcement officers will encounter danger throughout their careers, and, unfortunately, some will make the ultimate sacrifice. When I joined the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted Program, one of the first things I found was the consistency in the number of officers who die each year in both felonious and accidental deaths. The number of officers killed feloniously each year is staggering, but I found the accidental deaths just as disturbing. Each year not only is the number consistent but also the circumstances. The data collected by the LEOKA Program from 2007 through 2011 indicated that the top four circumstances in which law enforcement officers were accidentally killed included automobile accidents, vehicular strikes (while directing traffic or during traffic stops), motorcycle accidents, and crossfire incidents (either during a real life situation or training exercise). Automobile accidents and being struck by a vehicle made up approximately 75 percent of accidental deaths.
During the same five-year period, on average, 65 law enforcement officers were accidentally killed annually. Of those, an average of 39 died as a result of vehicle crashes.
In 2011 the LEOKA Program began collecting data on seatbelt usage among law enforcement officers killed during vehicle crashes. The data collected from 2011 showed seatbelt usage among police officers was at an unacceptable level — approximately 47 percent of officers involved in fatal crashes were not wearing their seatbelts. Throughout my travels across the United States, it is common to hear several excuses from officers as to why they elect not to wear them. They feel the belt prevents them from reacting quickly to situations, or they say it is uncomfortable. There also is a fear among some law enforcement officers that a fastened seatbelt will hinder a quick response to a threat.
Training — not only through the agency but self-initiated — is essential to dispel the misconceptions about seatbelt usage. Agency command staff must continue to put training in place to achieve and maintain 100 percent compliance for seatbelt usage. Officers should train themselves to remove their seatbelts while pulling behind a vehicle on a traffic stop or just prior to arriving in front of their call-for-service destination (at a slow roll). It should become muscle memory to fasten or remove a seatbelt. The decision to use the seatbelt could be a matter of life or death.
Seatbelt usage is critical in increasing the chance of survival. Officers have died in numerous situations behind the wheel, such as negotiating turns, catching up to a violating motorist, responding to a call for service, and conducting patrol. Each of these circumstances has one thing in common — speed. This is a significant reason why so many officers are killed during vehicle crashes. As I reflect on my career, I can recall several incidents where excessive speed was not necessary, yet it played a part in my responses to calls for service. I cannot help but wonder how many officers are killed each year from unnecessary speed-related crashes. It is critical to assess each call for service or road patrol activity to determine the level of speed necessary.
Another leading reason officers are accidentally killed each year is from being struck by a vehicle, either while directing traffic, assisting motorists, making traffic stops, or participating in a roadblock. Several agencies have recognized the severity of this problem and have put measures in place to combat it, such as training and mandating reflective vests for officers who direct traffic, investigate vehicle crashes, and make traffic stops. A reflective vest is a step in the right direction, but training must be a continuing factor in educating officers on safe roadside police activity.
I was fortunate to have survived being struck by a vehicle, but, in hindsight, I realize I could have prevented it from occurring. I should have stood in a safety zone — in this case, on the passenger side of the vehicle, placing me near the guardrail. This location would have given me an option to leap over the guardrail to a safe area at the first sign of danger. Officers must understand their safety zone and prepare themselves ahead of time. Having the right mind-set and maintaining consistent awareness of danger could make the difference in a life-or-death circumstance.
The goal and mission of the Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted Program is to reduce the number of officers killed or assaulted each year. Training has proven essential in saving lives and should be a joint effort with the officer and the agency to ensure it remains a proactive pursuit throughout an officer’s career. The ultimate reality is the need for all officers to take training seriously because it may be what gets them through a life-or-death situation. Of the interviews I have conducted with police officers involved in life-threatening situations, most officers credited training for saving their lives.
Some of the reasons officers are accidentally killed are the result of common-sense errors, such as driving unnecessarily fast, not wearing seatbelts, and defensive driving errors. Wearing a seatbelt, eliminating unnecessary speed, and taking all training seriously would greatly increase officers’ chance of survival and result in a substantial decrease in accidental deaths. Officers owe it to their families and themselves to make every effort to return home safely after every tour of duty.
-Philip D. Wright