Officer Safety – The Leader’s Role

Very few things worry police leaders more than the possibility of the death or serious injury of one of their officers. Good leaders care about their people. Great leaders demonstrate that care by taking proactive steps to instill a culture of safety and improve the overall well-being of their officers.

During my journeys with Below 100 training, I have heard police managers express an opinion that they won’t be able to get a suggested safety practice or procedure past their police labor group. I have even had some say they have given up trying because they just get pushback.

Leadership demands that you take care of your people and officer safety is paramount in that regard. When it comes to requiring use of safety equipment such as seatbelts, body armor or reflective vests, or establishing safe practices such as limitations on pursuits or high-speed responses, leaders must take ownership and ensure the right thing gets done. This is not about discipline; instead, this is about officer safety and ensuring your folks get home at night instead of being sent to the morgue. If you are a police leader, that is your job.

If you feel constrained by your organization’s labor groups, here are courses of action: 1) Do your due diligence and clearly understand the issue; 2) Develop a position that is practical and workable; 3) Discuss that position with the appropriate representatives and listen to any concerns. If a course correction is called for, make it; 4) Ensure your supervisors are properly on board and then implement the change, making it clear the action is in the interest of officer safety; 5) Do not start imposing discipline unless it is clearly called for and the behavior is egregious. Recognize those who do make the change, warn those who don’t and then, for the few who fail to come around, hold them accountable.

Some labor groups thrive on obstructionism and that makes things tough on everyone, but there is a common sense way to prevail. Check the organization’s bylaws and reasons for their existence. Virtually every labor organization will, within the first few sentences, have wording to the effect that they ‘exist to improve the safety, welfare, and working conditions of their members.’

If your proposed action is clearly in the interest of improving officer safety, you are on solid ground. If the change is in support of improving safety, such as requiring uniformed officers to wear body armor or employees to use a seatbelt, you should be able to fulfill your obligation as a leader. If necessary, straightforwardly pose this question: “What part of improving officer safety do you not support?”   

 

The Role of Supervisors

Front-line supervisors know where the issues are and where the risks are. Supervisors should continually ask the question, “Where is our next serious injury or line-of-duty death likely to occur?”

When asked that question, many supervisors actually have an individual officer in mind. This begs the question: What are they doing about it? I clearly remember hearing a sergeant expressing deep regret because he had not confronted a subordinate about the way he was operating his department motorcycle. Unfortunately, this regret was expressed after a funeral for the officer who had died when excessive speed combined with limited visibility resulted in a fatal crash.

Supervisors have a responsibility to know how their troops are performing and this includes knowing when they are taking unnecessary chances. For example, do you have an officer who regularly waives cover in circumstances that really call for a two-officer response or who fails to wait for another officer when common sense would dictate the need for assistance? These situations require leaders who make their expectations known and ensure those expectations are followed. Failing to do so simply invites dangerous behavior. Ignored behavior is condoned behavior. When it goes wrong, it’s on you.

 

The Role of FTOs

Police leaders should take the selection of field training officers as seriously as they take making a decision on a promotion. FTOs have incredible power and influence over new officers. Anyone entering the law enforcement profession feels tremendous pressure to succeed and demonstrate proficiency. They know their FTO can make or break their career and there is probably no other time in an officer’s training when he/she is so impressionable.

Ask any officer and he/she will be able to tell you vivid stories of their FTOs, even if the events took place decades in the past. If those FTOs are undermining policy or safe practices, such as recommending trainees go without a seatbelt, there is a high likelihood that the trainee will comply. And once that habit is ingrained, it can be very, very difficult to undue.

During Below 100 training, I ask those in attendance to raise their hand if they have been told by an FTO that officers shouldn’t wear their seatbelt while on patrol. Inevitably, one-half or more of the hands in the audience go up. The reasons vary, but they usually revolve around a feeling that seatbelts could be tactically unsound or might prevent an officer from escaping a dangerous situation. This thinking is killing our fellow officers. Check with your FTOs on this. Make sure they are doing and saying the right thing. There is no room for equivocation on this one.

 

The Role of Policy

A good policy is one that is clearly understood and is practical in its approach. Now is a great time to take a look at your department policies regarding speed, pursuits (vehicle and foot), seatbelts, and body armor. As you review them, ask yourself if the message is clear, the expectations realistic, and if the troops actually have familiarity with the policy.

Departments across the country are taking another look at the way they handle pursuits because too many innocent citizens and officers have died in chases that probably should not have occurred, or should have been terminated when the risk outweighed the need. Good policy, combined with supervisory oversight, will go a long way toward adding some degree of check and balance to this dangerous task.

It is also recommended that departments establish a pursuit review process for every pursuit. The purpose is twofold: 1) Ensure the policy is being followed, and 2) Convey to the troops that this is a serious action and merits constructive review.

In general, officers should be encouraged to self-terminate a pursuit rather than pushing the situation until a supervisor intervenes. And when an officer does self-terminate, use this as an opportunity to commend the officer for exercising restraint and good judgement. Ask them to debrief other troops as to what led to the decision. Why should you do this? Because what gets recognized gets repeated.

Does your department have a mandatory wear policy for body armor? Most agencies now have such a policy because it is a requirement when you receive DOJ/OJP vest partnership funding. Unfortunately, many department policies list exemptions for management and administrative positions. If you are in one of those positions and you don’t wear your body armor when in uniform, expect your troops to be frustrated and they have every right to feel that way.

Bars and stars don’t stop bullets. Body armor does. An armed assailant couldn’t care less about your rank or positon. If you are in uniform, then you are at risk. If you are not wearing armor, you are also putting others who may have to rescue you at risk. Any officer, regardless of rank, who is operating a marked vehicle or wearing a uniform should be wearing body armor.

If you are in the way, a bad guy won’t know or care that you are exempt from wearing armor. And don’t fool yourself with a rationalization that you are usually behind a desk. A number of shootings have taken place inside police facilities. Remember that very few people spend all day inside the station. When you take a lunch break and walk into your favorite deli, you could be walking right into the middle of a robbery. And, that fancy polo with the embroidered patch has zero ballistic stopping power.

 

Training

Does your department provide training that goes beyond meeting the mandates? Assess your weaknesses and then proactively take steps to shore up areas in need of improvement. Don’t use the excuse “There isn’t time.” Dedicated training time is sometimes a luxury so find a way to make it work.

At a minimum, make the briefing (roll call) productive by assigning officers to present on topics like felony takedowns, passenger-side approaches, a recent LODD summary from the Officer Down Memorial Page (www.ODMP.org), etc. You could also walk your troops through an on-location discussion of responding to a crime in progress at a local business during those early-morning hours when call volume drops.  

Look for ways to get more out of your existing training, especially those subjects that tend to have a lot of downtime. For instance, many agencies find their officers are often standing around while waiting for a turn to take on the EVOC course. Make this time productive by having someone review the reality of vehicle-related LODDs and injuries or ensuring that officers thoroughly understand the department’s pursuit policy.

Training does not have to be costly or take a lot of time. However, it does need to be relevant, ongoing, and verifiable. Don’t see this as something that has to be overly cumbersome. It can be a short, handwritten summary on the daily duty roster noting which officers were present and what subject was covered.

 

Promotions and Special Assignments

Most agencies have some type of competitive or interview process for promotions and special assignments. You can send a clear message as to the need to prioritize safety by asking a question such as this: What have you personally done to help improve officer safety in this organization?

Don’t let an officer avoid the issue with a response that includes, “Well, somebody ought to…” Make it clear that it is the individual and collective responsibility of all department personnel to improve officer safety and that nobody named “somebody” is employed at your agency.

 

Discipline

Discipline should be used sparingly but there are times when it is necessary because some folks will just not follow what should be common sense. If you fail to address these situations, you will undermine your effectiveness as a leader and you could cause the problem to spread. You also run the risk of being found vicariously liable in the event there is litigation when an officer or someone else is injured.

Officer safety is everyone’s job including front-line supervisors and FTOs. However, this is definitely an area where the buck stops on the leader’s desk. Take steps today to address areas of weakness, review policy, and implement practices that clearly encourage a culture of safety.

 

Dale Stockton is a 32-year-veteran of law enforcement, retiring as a police captain from Carlsbad, Calif. He is a founder of the Below 100 program. He may be reached at dalestockton@gmail.com.



Published in Law and Order, Oct 2016

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