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Back to Archives | Back to January 2010 Contents 

Officer Safety: Making the Vision a Reality

By Terry Milam, Chief of Police, St. John Police Department, Missouri; and General Chair, IACP Division of State Associations of Chiefs of Police



he Year of Officer Safety focus in the Police Chief magazine underscores IACP President Michael J. Carroll’s commitment to the safety of all involved in policing and law enforcement. This commitment reflects the mission of the IACP Division of State Associations of Chiefs of Police (SACOP) SafeShield project. The SafeShield concept originated within IACP’s SACOP for the benefit of all law enforcement. SACOP is a membership division that has the most direct daily contact with the greatest number of U.S. police agencies and executives. In the coming months, through the pages of the Police Chief, readers will learn much about the project and its core mission of reducing officer injuries and deaths.


What Is SafeShield?

SafeShield was born in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. During the 2002 midyear meeting of the SACOP Division, there was a discussion of the need to understand the current and future physical threats to police officers. SACOP knew that in the preceding years the numbers of officers killed had been increasing and new threats posed by chemical and biological weapons were increasing. Disturbingly, there was stark evidence that criminals were increasingly being armed with more powerful and destructive weapons. Most unfortunately, nothing in the intervening years has occurred to lessen these concerns.

Chief Bill Berger, the IACP president in 2001–2002, addressed the SACOP membership at its 2002 midyear meeting. President Berger knew that police executives were justifiably concerned about greater threats to police officers, and he committed to the SACOP membership to hold an IACP summit to consider actions to improve officer protection. The SACOP members were most receptive to President Berger’s offer for a summit. IACP staff was enthusiastic about the opportunity, but as is often the case, funding a summit was out of the question for the immediate future. However, SACOP continued to seek ways to satisfy the urgent need for increasing and improving officer safety.

SACOP is fortunate to have a long-standing relationship with the DuPont Corporation. In keeping with DuPont’s historic leadership in safety issues and safety innovations, DuPont was able and willing to help the division craft a project that will provide the framework for effective change in the law enforcement community. Hoping to mirror DuPont’s deeply ingrained concern for the safety and health of employees, SACOP embarked on the POST (Peace Officer Safety Technology) project, later renamed SafeShield to avoid confusion with state training certifying entities.

SACOP did not wait for an infusion of funds before beginning work on understanding the issues related to officer safety. The SafeShield Committee was amazed to learn that a central repository containing statistical data about officers injured does not exist. Leaders of the police community do not know the severity of the problem, and they are forced to make decisions daily about equipment, uniforms, training, and policies affecting officer safety with little or no universal data available on which to base their actions or choices.

To begin to remedy this lack of information, SACOP partnered with DuPont in 2003 to complete a survey about the causes of police injuries and deaths. The survey results have been widely distributed in the police community and to interested members of the research community, and readers can find the results on the IACP Web site under the SACOP section.1

Whereas no means comprehensive, the survey provided a useful picture of the various types of duty-related dangers and injuries officers are exposed to on a daily basis. It also highlighted the severe lack of substantial data on officer injuries. Before any effective safety recommendations can be made, it is imperative to understand how, with what frequency, and under what conditions officers are being injured and disabled. It is impossible to effectively address this issue and impractical to attempt to provide remedies without this information.

Currently the most information on how officers are killed on the job is available through the Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).2 The LEOKA report is an extremely valuable tool, and the annual report and three monographs published by the FBI are a great resource for law enforcement, and one that is sadly underused. The FBI conducts in-depth inquiries into every case where an officer dies as the result of a criminal act. The monographs provide prescriptive recommendations to help police officers decrease the likelihood of being feloniously killed on the job. The information provided on police assaults is less complete. The estimated number of 58,792 officers assaulted in 2008 may be substantially underreported for a number of reasons. Nevertheless, IACP is strongly supportive of the LEOKA program, and, in 2008, the IACP membership adopted a resolution expressing unwavering support of the program and its expansion.

SACOP members recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the FBI LEOKA annual report. On the plus side, the information contained in the report is well vetted. On the negative side, LEOKA does not present a complete view of the problem of on-duty injuries. The focus of LEOKA is primarily line-of-duty deaths resulting from criminal behavior. Rightfully so, every reasonable effort is demanded to decrease police deaths. However, information provided by LEOKA related to nonlethal assaults against police officers is far less complete and, thus, of less value, to law enforcement leaders.

The immense knowledge vacuum about officers’ on-duty injuries remains problematic, to say the least. Some injuries occur while officers are engaged in crime resistance tasks, and others are caused by noncriminal acts or high-profile incidents. These injuries are usually not reported by either the general media or the trade media. Still, these officers are injured and frequently they require time away from the job while undergoing rehabilitation. Regardless of the officers’ duty assignment, all too frequently these injuries are life altering for officers and their families, friends, and associates. Agencies lose the services of untold numbers of skilled police officers. The loss of services may last for only a brief period or may be permanent and result in the awarding of disability retirements. Governments appropriately absorb costs of all duty-related injuries to police officers. The cost of police injuries, lethal or nonlethal, crime-related or not, must be covered using government funds that cannot be earmarked for public safety initiatives.

That is why IACP president Carroll’s call for the creation of the Center for the Prevention of Violence Against the Police is so important. This center will be a milestone work in law enforcement history and will supply the information needed to provide sound recommendations for improvements to policy, training, and equipment that will keep all officers safe. The center will be the information and analytical engine to affect real, lasting change. SACOP is pleased to serve with other IACP stakeholders on the advisory group for this important project.


Why a Safety Culture?

Early in the process, SACOP recognized that in order for this program to be successful, there had to be a cultural shift toward the belief and attitude that injuries are preventable. The 2003 SafeShield survey revealed that the law enforcement community has the attitude that officer injury is expected or considered par for the course. Eighty-one percent of survey respondents believed that the majority of injuries are not preventable.3 The division knows that this is not acceptable and that SACOP needs to emphasize preventing injuries within the law enforcement community. The only acceptable goal is zero officers killed or injured. Safety has to become a priority, and agencies need to embrace a culture of safety by embedding the Eight Principles of Officer Safety4 in their organizations.

Safety in the private-sector workplace has been a top priority for many years. Fortune 500 companies and mom-and-pop shops know that providing a safe environment for their workers is the right thing to do. Nearly as important is the financial incentive to provide safe environments. Companies and organizations without strong safety cultures and programs will spend many millions of dollars in direct costs associated with injuries and illnesses. Additionally, indirect costs such as property damage, lost worker productivity, overtime, poor quality of goods and services, and damage to customer relations and public image can be in excess of three times the direct costs.

The law enforcement community, in reality, is not so different in these matters. Making safety a priority for officers is the surest way to convey concern for their lives, careers, and families. Additionally, the financial incentive to investigate changes to uniforms, equipment, policy, and training is huge. Of the 698 respondents to the 2003 survey, 369 reported at least one officer duty-related injury. Those agencies reported over 2,800 injuries and more than 24,000 lost workdays. That averages to almost eight injuries and 66.4 lost workdays per agency that reported at least one officer duty-related injury in 2002.

Other reviews of injuries mirror SACOP’s study findings. The League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT) is a proactive entity reviewing the problem of officer injuries. Police losses are among the largest in LMCIT’s worker’s compensation program. Officer injuries accounted for 26 percent of all workers’ compensation costs from 2003 to 2005 and cost on average about $3.3 million per year. LMCIT covers 900 cities in workers’ compensation programs in Minnesota alone. The costs could be astronomical and undoubtedly place an inordinate burden on police agencies and the communities.

Obviously, rising employee medical costs are of grave concern to all public safety agencies as budgets become more challenging in today’s economy. Reduction in citizen services, employee morale, equipment replacement, and training needs are all affected by loss of revenue and resultant financial cuts. Law enforcement executives have dual responsibilities to officers’ safety and to community’s financial well-being.


Embedding a Safety Culture

Management must set the tone for agencies. Of course, every person has an innate level of safety awareness, a natural instinct complemented by lessons learned from early childhood on. Lessons learned are potent—adults intentionally do not stick their hands in a flame because they know a burn would result. But beyond natural instincts and learned behaviors, safety can and should be dictated by management.

Organizational leaders must drive the safety culture through leadership and example. Safety leadership is primarily about departmental leaders educating officers and setting the proper example for responsible, thoughtful behavior. Embedding safety means embracing a genuine and deep commitment that cuts across operational and administrative lines and includes training, policies, and procedures.

The first step to affect change within an agency is to define the cultural change and consistently advocate the need for change. The management team must be on board with the change and convey the importance of the safety culture to first-line supervisors. Accountability and personal responsibility play a significant part in the safety culture. Line officers, supervisors, and command staff need to have a personal stake in the outcomes. All members of an agency must be empowered to stop unsafe practices and know that alternate ways of doing business can be brought forward to management.

As much as possible, departments should implement training based on realistic circumstances, such as during nighttime or inclement weather. The 2003 SACOP survey showed that more than half of the injuries reported by agencies occurred between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and midnight. Certainly, increasing the availability of realistic training scenarios would be worthwhile.

Operationally, executives should focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities. Safety must be a primary consideration in the design and implementation of all aspects of the agency. Conduct training, qualification, and recertification programs with emphasis for ingraining safety in the programs.

Equipment should incorporate available technology to increase officers’ safety and be a primary consideration when purchasing new equipment. Does that equipment or piece of gear represent a step forward in protecting the officers? At the most basic level, does the department have a mandatory wear policy for ballistic armor? If so, are supervisors managing the policy for compliance?

LMCIT showed that the top five injury categories by total incurred costs for police officers were foot pursuits (17.2 percent), use of force (15.6 percent), training (13.3 percent), nonemergency motor vehicle operations (7 percent), and medical assists (6.7 percent). The 2003 SACOP survey found that sprains were the most frequent class of injuries reported, accounting for 47 percent of all officer injuries and 54 percent of the total lost days. Unfortunately, the survey did not identify what officers were doing when they were injured, though it seems a reasonable conclusion that a good portion of the sprains occurred during some kind of foot pursuit, use of force, or training activity.

These findings confirm the conviction of SACOP and SafeShield that the types of injuries sustained and the conditions under which they occur can be positively influenced and reduced by improvements in uniform design, equipment, training, and policy. While uniform design and equipment is a little more complicated and involves the private sector, departments can quickly address training and policy issues. To reduce the injury figures, a review of policies and training in critical decision making is helpful, especially foot pursuit, use of force, motor vehicle operations, and proper handling of those needing medical assistance.


The Future

SafeShield was created from the need to provide better protection for police officers from threats posed by the new world reality. Recent events, like the Fort Hood tragedy,5 and the November 2009 slaying of four Lakewood, Washington, police officers6 add urgency to the need to understand the emerging threats. As it has been—and it likely will always be—police officers are easy to spot as they are the ones running toward danger as others are running away from it. The human threat is real, and use-of-force incidents are and should be a major concern for those who are in leadership positions. But, the human threat is not the only threat officers face. Occupational and procedural risks exist and can be as debilitating as force incidents. Fortunately, with proper and serious attention, mitigating both types of injuries is possible. Law enforcement executives can raise the level of safety awareness among officers. Executives can analyze local injury trends information and use it to benefit the officers. Chiefs can ensure their departments benefit greatly from the Center for Violence Against and Injuries to Law Enforcement Officers and effect great changes in the way law enforcement does its business and how officers are equipped.

Is this an ambitious plan? Yes. Is this a difficult road? Yes. But as John F. Kennedy said in his presidential inaugural address in 1961, “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” ■


Notes:

1SACOP, Executive Summary: SafeShield Project Officer Injury Survey, www.theiacp.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=PkUidtGRKPs%3d&tabid=464 (accessed December 8, 2009).
2Each year since 1996 the FBI publishes Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, collecting data through the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program on officers who were killed, feloniously or accidentally, and officers who were assaulted while performing their duties. Information about the 2008 Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted report can be found at www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2008/aboutleoka.html. Previous year’s reports can be accessed at www.fbi.gov/ucr/ucr.htm#leoka.
3SACOP, Executive Summary: SafeShield Project Officer Injury Survey, 2.
4Yousry A. Zakhary, “A Zero Tolerance Approach to Officer Injuries,” The Police Chief 75 (June 2008): 56–61, www.policechiefmagazine.com/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&article_id=1510&issue_id=62008 (accessed December 9, 2009).
5At Fort Hood, Texas, on November 5, 2009, 13 people were killed and 32 people were injured, including two civilian police officers; See Associated Press, “Army Adds Charges against Rampage Suspect: 32 Counts of Attempted Murder in Addition to Earlier Murder Charges” msnbc.com, December 2, 2009, www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34243082/ns/us_news-tragedy_at_fort_hood/ (accessed December 9, 2009); and Jeremy Pelofsky, “FBI Orders Independent Review after Fort Hood Shooting,” December 8, 2009, www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE5B73MA20091208?WT.srch=1&WT.mc_id=forthoodshooting (accessed December 9, 2009).
6Chris Grygiel and Scott Gutierrez, “Slain Police Officers Identified: Lakewood Police Guild, Coffee Company Taking Donations for Their Families,” SeattlePI.com November 30, 2009, www.seattlepi.com/local/412735_officers29.html (accessed December 9, 2009).

The Eight Principles of Officer Safety


Responsible Management: Management, which includes all levels from the chief to the first-line supervisor, is responsible for preventing injuries and illnesses. Senior management must exert sustained leadership in establishing safety goals, demanding accountability for safety and health performance, and providing necessary resources. An agency’s leaders must visibly demonstrate their commitment to the safety and well-being of their officers.

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. When the sources of danger cannot be removed, such as violent encounters, supervision must provide training, safety devices, and protective clothing to decrease the risk of injuries.

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. All employees must be convinced that they have a responsibility to work safely.

Training Employees to Work Safely: All employees must be trained to work safely. Effective training programs teach, motivate, and sustain safety knowledge, and officers must both understand and accept it.

Supervision for Safety: Management must monitor performance in the workplace to assess safety and health and to ensure that policies, such as mandatory vest wear, are being followed properly.

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.

The Most Important Element—People: The most essential part of 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-the job injuries and illnesses can seriously affect a police department’s operations in staffing, productivity, and finances.



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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 1, January 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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