Process Problem Solving Contributor
Recent press releases from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C. (NLEOMF) tell the horrifying story. This country is on track for 2007 to have more cops killed than at any other time in the last thirty years. Yeah--even more than after the attacks on 9/11.
More perplexing is that more of my brothers are dying in or around their patrol vehicles than those who are being shot by the bad guys. What? How can that be?
A cop funeral is the worst experience in life. I've been to too many. I went to Broward County (FL) Sheriff's Deputy Reyka's funeral just a few days ago. I'm new to Florida, but I'm not new to this Brotherhood and I know that I'm duty-bound to do whatever I can to ease the pain of those who feel this loss the most.
These deaths are not statistics. They are my brothers. They likely would have gone to Police Week, cried at the Vigil, and slapped me on the back as they bought me a beer after the service was over. They are my family. Everyone seems to be searching for the cause of these deaths. How can they happen? What can we do to stop them?
There has been a bunch of articles in law enforcement publications almost every month bemoaning the loss. Every one of them seems to end up without any clear cause. In our business, when we don't have a clue about how to "fix" a problem, we give the universal answer: more training is the solution.
Emergency Vehicle Operation (EVO) training is expensive. It's time-consuming. Rarely, can it be done locally. Cops have to travel to some distant spot to attend. The reality is that most cops get EVO training in the academy and little (if any) thereafter. Unless somehow, EVO training gets cheap, or it is mandated by a government edict, don't expect things to change anytime soon.
What's causing the problem?
There are all kinds of theories. We need safer roads. We need better vehicles. We need more training. We need...you fill in the blank; the list goes on.
Roads haven't turned suddenly ugly in just the past five years.
Most of us have been driving Ford's Crown Vic since the Chevy went out of production nearly a decade ago. No change there.
Training--has the current group of instructors suddenly become bad? Are the students strikingly more stupid? I think not.
Next roll call, get there a couple of minutes early (well, at least try). As the guys walk in, take a look at what they're doing. Pay special attention to the newer guys--5 years or less on the job. I bet you'll start to recognize the problem before leaving the station.
How many are talking on their cell phone? How many are texting? Just count 'em up and the source of much of the problem will be obvious--even to the untrained eye.
Part of what I do to earn a living involves riding along with officers. I analyze what is going on in their environment--all of it. Usually, I work the calls and incidents with the host officer. It's just the polite thing to do (Politeness is my middle name, eh? Yeah--right). But, I'm paying close attention and making mental notes of everything that affects that cop and his ability to work safely and effectively.
COP: sees a vehicle that gives rise to his decision for a stop. The vehicle plate/tag is run on the car computer. The initial response indicates that the plate is improper and should be on a different car that was reported stolen. The driver we see is a very close match to the physical description in the computer return. Cop concludes it is probably the same guy.
COP: calls to dispatch. He advises of the reported stolen plate, location, vehicle occupants, etc. After picking a good spot for the stop, we light him up. After a few moments, it's clear that the driver of the subject vehicle will not stop and increases his speed. COP advises dispatch. Our speed is now escalating. Windows go up. Things get serious. COP notifies dispatch by radio of location and updates situation.
CELL PHONE: a text message is received from one of the other cops on the crew. He wants to know what we've got.
VIDEO CAMERA: COP makes sure the camera is on and the microphone is working.
COMPUTER: added information comes back on the subject from NCIC. He has a felony warrant out of a nearby state. Message read and cleared.
CELL PHONE: another text message is received from yet another cop, asking if we need backup.
COP: advise dispatch of status and location.
COMPUTER: instant message received from a neighboring jurisdiction. Another officer heard us on the radio. He offers help and wants to know if we are headed his way.
COMPUTER: dispatch has now officially put us on a pursuit and the CAD information is updated on our computer. Message acknowledged.
CELL PHONE CHIRPS (Nextel): sergeant calling wants detail. Done.
COMPUTER: more information coming, now from the state penitentiary system, advising that our subject has spent time in the state pen.
CELL PHONE CHIRPS (Nextel): The sergeant back again advising that we can continue but are to break it off at the city limits.
RADIO: dispatch calling to check status and location.
COMPUTER: message received from another car. They are ahead of us on a crossing street and will soon join the pursuit.
CELL PHONE: it rings. It's the cop's wife/girlfriend. She is listening to the scanner and wants to make sure that he is OK.
And so it goes.
It's reasonably apparent to me. The problem has nothing to do with deteriorating roads, trainers, or cars. It has everything to do with an increased barrage of electronic stimulation that draws the cop's attention away from his driving.
It's commonly labeled: distracted driving.
What should I do?
First, I believe that getting an EVO training update is well worth the price of admission--even if you pay the cost yourself.
Next, consider and list the priorities for stress driving. It doesn't matter if you're the lead car in a vehicle pursuit or you're racing to back another officer who may have called "officer down" on the radio. It is stress driving.
Consider the priorities. First and foremost, you must pay attention to the road and vehicles immediately ahead. If you're in a pursuit, you've got one more high priority item to track: the dirtbag.
Second, you must scan the distance for road conditions, other cars, and pedestrians who may come directly into your path.
At that point, you must consider department policies. Most require that you maintain radio contact with dispatch or command to advise of your status--if you're in a pursuit. If not, then this item might not be on your list of "must do items."
It's then time to tune out on the other stuff that is not directly in your path. The cell phone will wait, as will the text messages. If you don't respond to the Nextel chirp, the caller will get the picture. Tell those who are in your home and work life that you will not be attending to the cell phone when the driving gets tough. And, then stick by your guns (so to speak).
Many agencies are concerned enough with officer safety that they have provided mobile computers in the car that "talk" to the cop. If there's a warrant, the computer will say so--out loud--even saying what the warrant is for. If your computer does not talk to you, well then you probably would be best to leave it alone when the going gets tough.
Consider asking dispatch to rerun the vehicle and registered owner. They can review the results and tell you the important stuff over the air.
Now I understand that what I'm saying is not some earth-shaking revolution. It's common sense.
What has happened is that all of this technology has become wired into our daily lives on a minute-by-minute basis? Remember what it was like before cell phones? I do. Text messages? They were not even dreamt about when I was a kid (note: I'm only 10 years old, now--wink). Today, I'd be lost if I couldn't drop a dime on someone almost 24x7 no matter where they are or what they're doing.
It's critical to remember that there are times when technology just doesn't fit the situation. I wouldn't dream of running the plate on a car if the driver was shooting out the window at me. There are more important things to accomplish--like taking out the scumbag that's doing the shooting.
So it is with stressed driving. Those situations don't have beginnings and endings that are a clearly defined and identifiable as when I'm coming under fire. But the risk is every bit as great.
An officer in a neighboring town was slaughtered in cold blood in part because he was too focused on the computer screen rather than his surroundings.
We get reports--almost daily--about cops involved in single car accidents where the cop lost control of the car. It rolled. It hit a tree. It ran off a bridge. He's dead. We've got a funeral to attend that could have been prevented.
Our Brotherhood will suffer another crushing loss. We will vow to learn from the death and improve. Those words need to be real and come alive in action.
This is the time to use the "when/then" line of thinking. Next time, when the driving gets tough--as it certainly will--will you have a plan of action for how to handle the radio, the video camera, the cell phone, the computer, the stereo, the mic on your belt, and the list goes on.
Prepare a list now. What is my on my list of IN and OUT. DO: drive, stay on the radio, as required, watch the bad guy. DON'T: use the cell phone, acknowledge instant computer messages, turn off the stereo, roll up the windows. You get the picture. "When/Then" thinking. You will work as you train. Practice it. Go through it mentally. Stay on task, and focus on the threat.
Vehicle crash deaths are up this year, a staggering 36% increase from last year. Will I hear your name read at the final roll call during the Candlelight Vigil next year? I hope and pray that I won't. But, the person who can most affect the outcome is YOU.
Please be safe, my brothers.