Below 100 training aims to reduce officer fatalities

he Below 100 training classes focused on bringing the national number of line-of-duty deaths to less than 100 each year

By Kaitlyn Pearson
The Ledger

LAKELAND — When William Gorman asked how many Lakeland Police Department officers don't wear their seat belts 100 percent of the time, almost half raised their hands.

When he asked how many officers checked their firearm that day to make sure it was functioning correctly, five officers in a room of about 30 raised their hands. And without a show of hands, Gorman immediately identified that not everyone in the room was wearing body armor during Tuesday's training session.

While all three of these things may sound like something simple, and are things officers across the nation frequently overlook, Gorman, a retired law enforcement officer, said, they are some of the leading causes officers die in the line of duty.

The Below 100 training classes focused on bringing the national number of line-of-duty deaths to less than 100 each year. The sessions' focus was on ways officers can save their lives and the lives of those around them, said Gorman, who taught four of the classes in a two-day span last week.

“It would've been helpful to have been exposed to this a long time ago,” said LPD K-9 Officer Ryan Back.

Back, who's been with the department almost 19 years, said that because of the cop culture and personality of officers, he started his career as a young and aggressive cop. Had he had the opportunity to hear the same information 15 years ago, Back said, it would've changed the way he made decisions and processed information.

If the class helps save one life because officers slowed down and questioned what's most important, Back said, it's worth it.

On average, Gorman said, 150 officers die each year in the line of duty. The last time the national number of officer deaths was below 100 was in 1943.

He said the mission of Below 100 is "to permanently eliminate preventable line-of-duty deaths and injuries through innovative training and awareness."

"With a little bit of effort, we can change the culture," Gorman said. "You can make a difference in this agency."

But Gorman said the class is not just about officer safety. It's a call to action.

Gorman said he understands that driving fast is a product of police culture, but safe driving at high speeds isn't something covered in basic training for officers. As for seat belts, Gorman said, just because there's no one to stop officers for not wearing one doesn't mean that behavior should continue.

He addressed the various excuses officers have for not wearing body armor: It's too hot, too uncomfortable, limits mobility or just doesn't fit right. So Gorman reminded officers that any excuse they can think of isn't good enough since they spend about 75 percent of their work day in an air conditioned patrol car.

“You need to wear body armor no matter what you do,” he said.

Gorman also explained how important it is to keep from getting distracted while on the job by using Lou Holtz's question, “What's important now?” He said the decision-making process of deciding what's most important keeps officers “living in the moment and being a master of the present.”

The last topic he discussed was complacency.

Gorman said the average age of officers killed is in the early 40s with at least 10 years of experience. Success, he said, breeds complacency, and officers should be especially vigilant as they continue to grow in their careers.

In 2015, 133 officers died, and Gorman said, the majority of deaths were all vehicle-related accidents where officers were speeding or not wearing seat belts.

In the first few months of 2016, there have been been 29 deaths, Gorman said. The most recent death was on Saturday when Texas Highway Patrol Trooper Jeffrey Nichols, who was speeding, lost control of his vehicle and hit a tree.

"Sometimes, we're our own worst enemy," Gorman said.

"Many times, (these fatalities) didn't have to happen," he said. "A lot of injuries and deaths that are preventable sometimes happen simply because they aren't talked about."

LPD officers were shown various dash camera videos of law enforcement personnel dying after being shot while not wearing a vest or getting into car crashes because they were speeding or driving recklessly.

While officers don't have intent to injure or kill themselves or others, Gorman said, "bad things happen when we abuse our authority."

That statement took on an entirely new meaning when Kimberly Schlau stood in front of the room and talked about how her teenage daughters, Jessica and Kelli Uhl, were killed by a speeding trooper.

On Nov. 23, 2007, Illinois State Police Trooper Matt Mitchell was driving to a car crash on the interstate while traveling at 126 mph and using his personal cellphone. Mitchell lost control of his vehicle, crossed over the median and crashed into the Uhls' car, obliterating the vehicle and instantly killing both girls.

Schlau said she initially thought the incident was “one of those things” where the officer needed to get to a call quickly, but when she received information about Mitchell's speed and distractions, she realized her daughters' deaths were preventable.

“Not only did (Illinois state troopers) have to tell me two of my daughters weren't coming home,” she said, “they had to tell me it was because of one of their own.”

Over the years, Schlau said, her thoughts toward law enforcement have stayed positive.

“You run to situations I run away from,” Schlau told LPD officers Tuesday. “For every officer like (Mitchell), there are thousands of others who do this job with honor and respect.”

Schlau said that speaking to Below 100 classes and sharing her daughters' story is her way of giving back to law enforcement by reminding them to be safe.

“We never did have to bury Jessica and Kelli,” Schlau said through tears. “If this is the way they change the world, I'm OK with that.”

Copyright 2016 The Ledger

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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