Reviewing traffic stop safety

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These latest figures provide a grim reminder that even with all of the safety improvements that have been achieved in recent decades, our law enforcement officers still face grave, life-threatening dangers each and every day.” –Craig Floyd, chairman and CEO, National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF)

It’s bad enough that the number of U.S. law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty surged nearly 43% during the first six months of this year, according to preliminary data released today by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF).

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What’s worse is that traffic-related fatalities for law enforcement officers jumped 35%, from 31 at the mid-point of 2009 to 42 as of June 30 this year. The fatality totals this year included 29 officers who died in automobile crashes, four killed in motorcycle crashes and nine who were struck and killed while outside their vehicles – all increases from 2009, the group noted.

This is disheartening, to say the very least. If current trends continue, NLEOMF said 2010 would become the 13th consecutive year in which more law enforcement officers are killed in traffic-related incidents compared to any other single cause.

Think about this for a minute: Traffic-related incidents – again, including automobile and motorcycle crashes, as well as officers struck while outside their vehicles – accounted for more than 48% of the fatalities between January 1 and June 30 this year, whereas firearm-related fatalities made up nearly 36%, with deaths from all other causes combined accounted for the remaining 16%.

And if the mid-year trend continues, NLEOMF stressed, 2010 could end up being one of the deadliest years for U.S. law enforcement in two decades – mainly from traffic-related incidents!

Now, when it comes to traffic-stops, law enforcement agencies of all sizes and stripes focus a lot of their safety training time on what I call “the people factors” – how to interact with the folks they pull over, the warning signs for potential violent encounters, etc. Yet by comparison little of this training focuses on the roadway around the traffic-stop.

[Here’s a good training example one from the Chicago Police Department. Note how the traffic-stop examples take place on roads devoid of traffic.]

Now, I am certainly not trying to ding anyone here. Lord knows, getting into a shootout or physical combat as the result of a traffic stop is one of the biggest nightmares of any police officer, for the potential for things to go badly for the officer is very high.

The story of Officer Lou Gregoire, a police helicopter pilot in Gwinnett County, GA, provides a frightening example of this. He would’ve most likely have been killed during a traffic stop altercation outside of Atlanta back in 2000 if a truck driver named David Zorn hadn’t stepped in to save his life.

Yet I think it’s important to note that more police officers are dying in traffic-related incidents than in gun battles. That tells me, at least, that more thought needs to be given to the actual mechanics of the traffic stop.

Just take a look at the video clip below from about five years ago. The officer in question survives unscathed, but it’s a prime example of just how dangerous the environment surrounding a routine traffic stop can be.

To me, at least, NLEOMF’s data means we’ve got to look at more ways to better educate both the motoring public and law enforcement personnel about the inherent dangers posed by the vehicle flow surrounding a traffic stop, along with how things such as weather can worsen that safety picture, as well.

For far too many law enforcement personnel are losing their lives needlessly to traffic-related causes. That, my friends, has got to change.

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