Charlie Beck, Chief of Police, Los Angeles, California, Police Department
he end of 2013 marked the 25th anniversary of one of the worst losses of life in the history of the Los Angeles, California, Police Department (LAPD). Three Los Angeles police officers lost their lives in an on-duty collision that forever impacted the department and the officers’ families.
In the early morning hours of December 12, 1988, what seemed to be another ordinary evening in Central Division suddenly turned tragic. At approximately 3:55 a.m., an undercover unit broadcast that they were following a stolen vehicle with four suspects, and they requested backup. Two officers in one patrol car drove toward the backup request, northbound on Wall Street. As they entered the intersection at 5th Street, another pair of officers in a separate patrol car, travelling eastbound the wrong way on a one-way street, entered the intersection at the same time and collided with the other patrol car. The collision took place on streets immediately adjacent to the Central Police Station. The force of the impact caused one car to careen into a light pole, ejecting the officers, and the other car landed in a nearby construction ditch. First responders described the scene as a “war zone of chaos and confusion.” Rescue efforts quickly turned to the recovery of the deceased.
Three of the four officers in the two patrol cars were killed. The one officer who survived was wearing his seat belt. He walked away from that tragedy and was able to continue a 25-year career and retire in good health. The officer’s family was so grateful for his use of good judgment, and his then-unborn daughter is thankful that her father’s life was spared.
This incident brought to the forefront the use of seat belts by police officers. Then-Police Chief Daryl Gates immediately took steps to reinforce the importance of seat belts for officer safety. And while the tremendous loss left an indelible mark on the department and its personnel, the efforts that followed in the months and years ahead ultimately have not significantly changed the underlying risks taken that early morning over a quarter of a century ago. Actually, some would argue that the situation has actually gotten worse.
The latest statistics available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that from 1980 to 2008 nearly 4,000 law enforcement officers across the United States were killed in the line of duty. In the late 1990s and continuing over the course of the last decade, the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty as a result of traffic collisions has consistently risen, surpassing 50 percent of all law enforcement line of duty deaths in some years, including 1999, 2003, and 2008. Additionally, 42 percent of law enforcement officers killed in crashes were not using restraints (seat belts).1 With so many young officers growing up over the last two or more decades where the use of seat belts by the general public has become standard fare, what is it that would cause an officer to go backwards in understanding the importance of defensive driving and always wearing a seat belt?
California Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) officials estimate that only half of the police officers in the state of California wear their seat belts.2 As for LAPD’s experience, a recent examination of traffic collision reports involving Los Angeles police officers identified that 37 percent of officers involved in on-duty collisions were not wearing their seat belts.3 That is far too many officers who are otherwise professional and safety-minded but who unnecessarily expose themselves to risk of injury and, potentially, death.
The department recently initiated a comprehensive internal campaign to institutionalize safe driving and the consistent use of seat belts. Seat belt usage and safe driving are constantly topics of discussion at briefings and staff meetings at all levels throughout the department. Officer-involved traffic collision reports are carefully reviewed to ensure that the use of seat belts by officers is accurately reported so that compliance with policy can be tracked and corrected when necessary. Random seat belt audits in the field by frontline supervisors are used to monitor compliance.
Much like other tactical officer safety concerns, partners in a patrol car are strongly encouraged to remind each other daily about safe driving and seat belt use. Throughout the workday, partners must diligently remind each other, every time they get in a police vehicle, to buckle up.
There are many resources available to police departments that offer programs and videos that illustrate the benefits of wearing a seat belt versus not wearing one. The LAPD has produced an awareness video that recalls the poignant personal stories of grief and loss that occurred in that incident and reminds viewers of the impact of their driving choices. California POST, in conjunction with the International Association of Chiefs of Police and others, has recently initiated a series of safe driving and seat belt videos as well.
In terms of training, most officers understand how and when to use seat belts. The decision to comply with department policy and wear the seat belt is a matter of choice. Many officers feel that they are placed at a tactical disadvantage when seat belted in a patrol car. Research has been unable to substantiate a single case where the use of seat belts has contributed to a law enforcement line of duty death. LAPD's department policy allows for tactical considerations when potentially dangerous situations are perceived or anticipated. Officers are specifically trained on how to quickly disengage a seat belt in the appropriate situations and are given specific examples of exactly when it may be reasonable to do so. In those instances where officers are involved in traffic collisions and determined not to be wearing their seat belts, corrective action is taken.
A training program that provides an opportunity to practice very specific techniques at disengaging seat belts in tactical situations, backed up by a clear policy, can be effective. In closing, it’s ultimately the application of good judgment that guides officers as to any situation where they would choose to disengage a seat belt as they arrive on a scene or deal with a sudden emergency. However, the challenge before all law enforcement isn’t that decision. Rather it is the dynamic of what is influencing officers to get in police cars and overdrive or not wear seat belts at all.
Every law enforcement agency has an obligation to provide for the safety of its employees. Whether it is through training, establishing clear policy, or discipline, the objective is for officers to remain safe in a dangerous environment and use all of their issued safety equipment appropriately. As the profession continues to demonstrate outstanding advances in improving public safety, it must find the means to see the day in which officers wear their seat belts and operate their vehicles with the same reverence for their lives and their partners’ lives as they hold for the public they serve. ♦
1Eun Young Noh, Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officer’s Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes, DOT HS 811 411 (United States Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, January 2011) http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811411.pdf (accessed April 4, 2014).
2California Post Website, https://www.post.ca.gov (accessed April 4, 2014).
3Los Angeles Police Commission, Review of the Department’s Traffic Collision Reports and Safety Belt Use Second Quarter 2012, October 29, 2013, http://www.lapdpolicecom.lacity.org/102913/BPC_13-9999.pdf (accessed April 4, 2014).
Please cite as:
Charlie Beck, “A Lesson Learned the Hard Way—One Agency’s Recommendations for Increasing Seat Belt Use,” The Police Chief 81 (May 2014): 40–42.