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Back to Archives | Back to June 2008 Contents 

A Zero Tolerance Approach to Officer Injuries

By Yousry A. Zakhary, Chief of Police, Woodway, Texas; and General Chair, Division of State Associations of Chiefs of Police, IACP

ccording to the National Safety Council’s Injury Report for 2008, in 2004 unintentional injuries continued to be the fifth leading cause of death, exceeded only by heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory diseases. Preliminary death certificate data for 2005 indicate that it will remain in fifth place once all the figures are compiled.

Nonfatal injuries also affect millions of U.S. citizens. In 2005, 33.2 million people—about one of every nine—sought medical attention for an injury, and 2.8 million people were hospitalized for injuries. Approximately 28.4 million were treated in hospital emergency departments, and 5.4 million visits to hospital outpatient departments were for unintentional injuries. About 40.9 million visits to physicians’ offices were for unintentional injuries.

The economic impact of these fatal and nonfatal unintentional injuries amounted to $652.1 billion in 2006. This is equivalent to about $2,200 per capita, or about $5,700 per household. These are costs that every individual and household pays, whether directly out of pocket, through higher prices for goods and services, or through higher taxes.

These are staggering figures. As the month of June has been designated as National Safety Month, it certainly makes good sense for all U.S. citizens to try to mitigate injuries and make safety a priority in their homes and workplaces.

Within the law enforcement community, 186 officers died in the line of duty in 2007, a tragic 28 percent increase over 2006. With the exception of 2001, there had been a welcome decline in the number of officer fatalities since 1974. Now fatalities caused by gunfire and trafficrelated incidents are increasing.

Although officer deaths are always a serious problem for the law enforcement community, the rate of officer injuries should not be downplayed or ignored. It is difficult to get a clear picture of what is harming officers on a national scale, because there is no centralized database for officer injuries and illnesses. However, a hazy picture can be formed based on some sources:

  • The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 2006 shows that 15,704 officers suffered injuries from assaults. This is based on reporting from 10,346 agencies employing 495,270 officers but is limited to assaults only. Furthermore, it fails to provide any information about the severity of the injuries, job time lost, or financial and other costs incurred.

  • The League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust reported 115 injury claims in 2004 that cost $2,608,970 in medical expenses alone. That averages to more than $22,680 per claim.

  • The Maine Municipal Association conducted a review of liability and worker’s compensation claims from 2001 to 2007; of the 2,859 claims in that period, 13 percent resulted in lost time, 62 percent resulted in medical and restricted duty, and 25 percent required first aid only.

None of these sources offer a total, clear picture of the state of law enforcement injuries today. At this time, there is no way to know the size of the problem, what causes the most injuries, and what the costs are, both in financial and human terms. What is obvious, though, is that something must be done to keep officers safe and sound. The law enforcement profession must change its tacit acceptance of officer injuries as being just part of the job.

The IACP’s Division of State Associations of Chiefs of Police (SACOP) has undertaken a critical examination of the problem of duty-related injuries. The SafeShield project embodies the commitment of law enforcement executives to keeping their officers safe. It is a long-term project to examine technology for personal protective systems for line officers, to review procedural policies, and to advocate increasing and improving training, with the end goal of sending officers home safely every day.

The SACOP SafeShield Committee commissioned a survey in 2003. The objective of the survey was to gather information about what types of on-duty injuries officers sustain, as well as the severity and frequency of these injuries.1 Aside from the injury information gleaned from the survey, one of the more astounding facts was that 54 percent of the respondents estimated that less than 5 percent of officer injuries were preventable. By contrast, only 27 percent of respondents felt that as much as a quarter of the incidents were preventable.

The survey demonstrated a clear need for an attitudinal shift toward zero tolerance for injuries before any changes to uniform design, equipment, training, and policy will have an impact. All the equipment, all the best training, and all the sound policy development will not keep officers safe as long as injuries are accepted as part of the job. Law enforcement leaders can begin to alter the mindset about officer injuries by implementing eight safety and health principles for a safe law enforcement work environment.

Eight Principles for a Safe Work Environment

The prevention of all injuries and preventable illnesses is a realistic goal and not just a theoretical objective. Other professions do not accept on-duty injury as a normal part of the job. The first step on the road to increasing officer safety is an attitudinal and cultural shift to zero tolerance for officer injuries and preventable illnesses. Law enforcement leaders must set the tone to create an environment in which officer injury is considered preventable.

The key term in this principle is zero tolerance. With any less demanding objective, injuries and preventable illnesses will be seen as acceptable. Even if an injury or illness does occur, a zero tolerance policy includes a commitment to determine and eliminate the root cause so that future occurrences can be prevented. Supervisors with the responsibility for the well-being of other employees cannot be effective without fully accepting this principle.

The IACP membership took an important first step when it embraced the concept of zero tolerance for injuries when it adopted the “Vision for Officer Safety” resolution at the 113th Annual IACP Conference in Boston in 2006. Zero tolerance involves building a culture in which obstacles to officer safety are identified and eliminated. It does not involve punishing officers who are injured in the line of duty. Although officers have limited control over dangerous situations that they face in the line of duty, agencies can control outcomes through comprehensive planning, policy, training, and specifications for uniforms and equipment. These measures will in turn affect the law enforcement mindset about officer injuries.

Responsible Management: Management, which includes all levels from the chief to the first-line supervisor, is responsible for preventing injuries and illnesses. Safety and health are line management responsibilities; they cannot be delegated. Only when senior management exerts sustained leadership in establishing safety goals, demanding accountability for safety and health performance, and providing necessary resources, can a safety and health program be effective in a law enforcement environment. An agency’s leaders must visibly demonstrate their commitment to the safety and well-being of their officers.

Proper safety and health management necessitates involvement. The lead must come by example rather than rhetoric alone. The command staff of a law enforcement agency sets the safety and health standards for the entire agency staff. Law enforcement executives are responsible for the safety of their officers, and supervisors must accept responsibility for the safety and health of the employees under their direction.

As a result of this principle, concern for safety should be considered a major yardstick of performance. The ability to carry out safety and health responsibilities must be a primary measure of an individual’s leadership and prospects for promotion.

Control of Operating Exposures: All operating exposures that may result in injuries or preventable illnesses can be controlled, no matter what the exposure is, and effective safeguards can be provided. It is preferable, of course, to eliminate the sources of danger; but where this is not reasonable or practical, supervision must specify measures such as special training, safety devices, and protective clothing. If injury is predictable, it is preventable.

Safety as a Condition of Employment: Conscientious assumption of safety and health responsibility is required by all employees from their first day on the job. This means that all employees must be convinced that they have a responsibility to work safely. Employees will respect the safety and health program and accept safety as a condition of employment when they understand that management has adopted a zero tolerance policy on officer injuries.

Training Employees to Work Safely: All employees must be trained to work safely. Without effective training programs to teach, motivate, and sustain safety knowledge, injuries cannot be eliminated. Training can only be effective when officers both understand and accept it.

An effective training program requires that procedures and safety rules be established for all job functions. Each major activity must be covered by a procedure and safety performance standards, and the training for those activities must stress officer safety.

Supervision for Safety: Management must monitor performance in the workplace to assess safety and health program success. Safety assessments must be performed continuously and must be considered in all decision making. Comprehensive assessments and inspections not only confirm the effectiveness of the facilities and programs in achieving desired performance but also detect specific problems and help to identify weaknesses in law enforcement safety and health efforts. All supervisors should conduct safety audits and frequent safety inspections depending on the operations performed in their area of responsibility. They should review specific operations with their employees to verify that safety procedures are understood and have not become outdated.

Prompt Correction of Deficiencies: Without prompt action to rectify deficiencies, the risk of injuries will increase and the credibility of the safety program will suffer. Correction may take the form of facility modification, equipment replacement, procedure changes, training, or constructive discipline. Discipline must be exercised when needed, and disciplinary actions must be consistent and predictable if they are to be effective. Follow-up audits must be made to verify the effectiveness of prescribed remedies.

The Most Important Element—People: The one essential ingredient in the recipe for a safe workplace is its people. Intelligent, trained, and motivated employees are an agency’s greatest resource. Success in safety depends on officers following procedures, participating actively in training, and identifying and alerting management to potential hazards. When management demonstrates a real concern for each employee, a mutual respect is established, and the foundation is laid for a solid safety program.

Safety While off Duty: An off-the-job injury or preventable illness is no less difficult than one suffered on the job. In addition to the personal suffering employees and their families feel, off-thejob injuries and illnesses can seriously affect a police department’s operations in the following ways:

  • Staffing

  • Additional workloads placed on supervision

  • Limited productivity of injured employees upon their return to work

  • Increase in payments for health insurance

Consequently, departments should be engaged in a continuing off-the-job safety program. This program should receive the full attention and interest of every member of the management team. It is an integral part of the safety effort.

Safety Committees for Risk Management

Safety committees have proved to be an effective means of carrying out departmental safety and other risk management policies, disseminating information, enlisting employee cooperation in the safety and risk management effort, and generating and sustaining interest in safety and health.

This committee carries out the safety vision established by the agency’s leader. It guides and coordinates the overall safety and risk management effort of the agency based on departmental policies and procedures and, in general, deals with risk management matters of concern. There are several individual areas to which attention must be paid.

Occupational Health: Committees must establish occupational health policies and programs and monitor their effectiveness with respect to established goals and requirements. This section provides program coordination because it requires input from medical, safety, and industrial hygiene representatives, whose functions are interrelated.

Areas of involvement (with agency participants in parentheses) include the following:

  • Personal protective equipment (purchasing officers, patrol officers)

  • Fitness for duty (physicians, psychiatrists)

  • Chemical exposure control (industrial hygienists, tactical team, range masters)

  • Ergonomics (physicians, patrol officers)

  • Noise abatement and hearing conservation (physicians, industrial hygienists, range masters)

  • Environmental control (industrial hygienists, municipal health experts)

Emergency Preparedness: Emergency preparedness focuses on the establishment of site policies and procedures for providing medical care, fire protection, disaster control, and evacuation planning for an agency and its personnel. Responsibilities include training employees and conducting periodic drills to monitor effectiveness.

Rules, Procedures, and Training: Committees must also establish agency policies and audit performance with respect to site safety, operating procedures, and training programs for both sworn and nonsworn personnel.

Supervisors are responsible for stressing safety to all employees. Regular safety messages should address day-to-day safety and health problems. Roll-call briefings are one opportunity for conveying the agency’s emphasis on safety. All agency leaders and supervisors should be open to opportunities for espousing safety on a continuous basis. They should also review and act on safety and risk management problems in a particular area. Problems that have an agency-wide relevance should be referred to the department safety committee.

Safety Supervisor: The safety supervisor serves as an adviser to management, a consultant to the line organization, and a coordinator of the overall safety organization. The supervisor analyzes and evaluates the safety effort and is responsible for preparing and maintaining all statistics, records, and reports related to safety. This staff member should be familiar with national and local regulations governing workplace safety (such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970).

Employee Training

Orientation of New Employees: Safety and occupational health orientation for new officers is a responsibility that falls to everyone from supervisors, who see to the officers’ orderly indoctrination, to their fellow officers, who look after them during their first days on the job. While working to enable new officers to function as active members of the agency, staff should convey a sense of the agency’ssafety culture to them. All employees should develop safety consciousness early in their employment. Specifically, the orientation program should include at least the following topics:

  • Safety philosophy—zero tolerance for officer injuries

  • Site and area safety rules (jails, firing ranges)

  • Occupational health considerations

  • Protective equipment needs

  • Importance of promptly reporting all injuries to supervisors and receiving treatment by medical personnel

  • Location of emergency equipment and how to use it

  • Emergency procedures for fires and explosions, including evacuation

An essential aspect of this training is to develop healthy safety attitudes, including an understanding of and belief in the safety philosophy. Training should stress the reasons behind rules and procedures, for following operating instructions, for wearing personal protective equipment, and so on, because employees are more likely to reject the aspects of their jobs that appear arbitrary or pointless. One of the goals of training is to convince employees that their work can be done safely and that injuries can be avoided by following the rules and procedures that have been developed and by asking questions when the correct course of action is doubtful. The obligation to perform safely should be conveyed explicitly to new officers and employees.

Just as the subject of ethics is integrated into all other aspects of job training, most safety training should be integrated and not be an entity unto itself. The safety aspects of a job cannot and should not be separated from the other important aspects. Safety should be seamless and transparent within a job. Supervisors should follow up with all new employees at regular intervals to review their safety performance, their participation in safety and occupational health programs, and their overall knowledge of work procedures.

On-the-job Training: On-the-job training is the oldest and most widely used means of developing job skills. Today, as job requirements become more complex, this training becomes invaluable to safety and health as well as operating efficiency. Selecting the right experienced employees to carry out the training is very important, especially with respect to their attitudes toward safety and health. New employees will pick up many of the traits, good or bad, of their instructors; therefore, agencies should tap employees who demonstrate knowledge of employee safety and wellness practices.

To be effective, training should be well planned. It is important that supervisors have a means to measure consistently and document an employee’s comprehension of a job for the purpose of qualification:

  • The employee and the supervisor review the written procedure.

  • The supervisor, with procedure in hand, observes the employee either actually performing the task or walking through each step. The supervisor can then correct any deviations from the procedure on the spot.

  • The employee and the supervisor critique the audit, identifying problem areas and asking for the employee’s input on the adequacy of the procedure.

Continued Training: Training is a continuing responsibility of supervisors to maintain high standards of quality of service, productivity, and safety and is one of the vital keys to effective safety administration. Ongoing training includes evaluating the performance of personnel to detect changes from standards or deviations that could cause problems. The behavior of people can change, job requirements can change, shortcuts can be developed for convenience, equipment can change, and so on. Supervisors have the responsibility of detecting these changes and adjusting policies and procedures as necessary through training. When a process changes or a piece of equipment is added, supervisors must consider and plan the best way to retrain employees. Combining the classroom with on-the-job training is often the best approach.


Enforcing the law is a dangerous job; many injuries officers sustain are the result of malice and forethought. While agencies have very limited control over the dangerous and often deadly situations that officers face in the line of duty, they can control many of the injuries and incidents that beset their officers. They can control many outcomes through comprehensive planning, training, uniform enhancements, and proper policy implementation. In addition, they can control their personnel’s mindset about officer injuries and build a culture of zero tolerance for officer injuries. When that happens, any safety measures adopted will have a greater impact and a greater chance of success.

An agency will achieve its goal of complete safety only when all agency members are committed to the wellness and safety of all employees and particularly of all officers. Agency leaders must be willing to take on this challenging and often misunderstood task of making safety a priority. This priority will not weaken officers or agency standards; rather, it involves looking at all aspects of the job and the environment to see where an agency can do a better job of keeping its men and women safe. This culture change must start with leaders at all levels of the law enforcement community. ?


1A summary of the survey can be found at .



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 6, June 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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