Protecting the protectors: Identifying and mitigating risks to officer safety
Using lessons learned from near misses to prevent injuries and fatalities from felonious assaults, missed firearms, ambushes and unprovoked attacks
For additional resources on officer safety, download Officer Down! A Police1 Survival Guide.
Law enforcement is a risky profession. From 2012 to 2021, policing suffered 2,034 line of duty deaths, averaging 54 deaths from felonious assaults and 50 from motor vehicle-related incidents each year, according to data reported by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF). Moreover, tens of thousands of officers sustained injuries.
While it may be easy to conclude that these injuries and fatalities are unavoidable and, therefore, “just part of the job,” that conclusion would be incorrect and is, quite frankly, counterproductive to achieving meaningful improvements in officer safety.
The simple truth is more can be done in law enforcement to mitigate risk and prevent officer injuries and fatalities.
While law enforcement will likely never be a risk-free profession, there are strategies, practices and tools we can implement and use to reduce risk and enhance safety.
Learning from near misses
High-risk industries learned long ago that identifying and studying near misses – situations where something terrible nearly happened but did not – is a fundamental safety practice for identifying and proactively correcting policy, training and equipment deficiencies before someone is hurt or killed.
Commercial aviation, for example, developed the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) in 1976 following a series of fatal crashes to identify, disseminate and address safety issues to improve aviation safety. Almost 50 years and 1.7 million report submissions later, it is no accident that commercial aviation in the United States is among the safest forms of travel.
In 2014, the National Policing Institute (formerly known as the National Police Foundation) developed and launched the Law Enforcement Officer Near Miss Reporting System (LEO Near Miss) with funding support from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office).
Modeled after successful near miss reporting systems in other industries, LEO Near Miss is an online platform that enables law enforcement personnel to read about and anonymously share near misses, often referred to as “close calls.” Every near miss – defined as any incident where an officer was almost seriously injured or killed, but harm or death was avoided – offers valuable lessons learned and reminders that, if shared with the law enforcement community, can be incorporated into training and policy development proactively to mitigate risks and improve officer safety.
Today, LEO Near Miss contains hundreds of near misses and lessons learned from officers across the country and serves as a no-cost resource for law enforcement personnel looking for quick training material to improve their safety in the performance of their duties.
Preventing injuries and fatalities from felonious assaults, missed firearms, ambushes and unprovoked attacks
As the law enforcement profession grapples with felonious assaults, ambushes and unprovoked attacks on law enforcement officers, examining near misses for lessons learned and reminders that can safeguard officers is crucial. Take this near miss report as an example:
We were sent to a domestic in a small studio apartment. My partner was talking to the female, and I stood cover. The female said the male subject had left the scene. I was standing next to what I thought was a closet, with a curtain as a door.
Something in the way the female subject was answering questions, as well as her body language, made me uneasy. I noticed her looking at the closet a few times. We were 5 minutes into the call when I casually reached over and parted the curtain. There he was. Just standing there. I was badly startled. I just reached in, grabbed his arm, and took him to the floor with a few choice words. I cuffed him and did a pat down. When I rolled him over, I found a loaded .38 snub in his waistband. Needless to say, had he wanted us dead, we would be. I could have gotten us both killed.
In this near miss, the officers found themselves in a position of tactical disadvantage where they likely would have been seriously injured or killed by the concealed subject had the subject chosen to attack the officers. The involved officer cited complacency, a lack of situational awareness and an inadequate scene size-up as risk factors contributing to the dangerous situation. The officer provided the following lessons learned:
- Conduct a safety sweep of EVERY domestic scene, no matter how small the scene is. Every room and door needs to be checked. Ensure one officer is performing all cover-officer responsibilities.
- The female in this incident said the male subject left because he had threatened to kill her if she told us he was there. Don’t assume the victim is being fully truthful with you; fear and threats are often used by suspects in order to dissuade victims, which may result in the victim providing misinformation to officers.
- Pay attention to your instincts. If something feels wrong, it probably is.
Another situation in which officers are susceptible to a deadly assault is one involving missed firearms on previously searched subjects or arrestees. These near misses have been reported with surprising frequency. One such near miss is detailed below:
I stopped and arrested a staggering drunk in a parking lot. As I searched him, he leaned up against and partly over the hood of my car. He also kept squirming, so I had a hard time with the search, especially around the crotch. I thought, “Whatever.”
I took him into booking, and as I started to search him again, he pressed himself against the wall, preventing me from reaching his waistband. I jerked him around and checked his waist. Nothing. I had a bad vibe at that moment. I grabbed his crotch and felt an object. It was hard as a rock and not because he liked me. He pulled away, still handcuffed, and I reached down inside his underwear and retrieved a loaded .32 revolver. He suddenly “sobered up” and, staring coldly at me, said, “I would have killed you if you hadn’t found that.” I have no doubt he would have.
Similar to the previously highlighted near miss, the officer in this situation cited complacency as the primary risk factor contributing to the near miss. The officer provided the following lessons learned:
- Don’t get complacent with any aspect of your job, especially searches.
- Remember, when searching underneath any clothing, conduct an external pat down of the area first, then pull the clothing away from the body and inspect visually before touching underneath the clothing. If available, request an officer of the same sex as the prisoner to do a search of a sensitive area to ensure you don’t become the subject of a complaint.
- Trust your instinct. If you don’t feel good about something, you’re probably right!
In total, the LEO Near Miss programmatic team at the Institute examined 93 near misses specifically related to felonious assaults (excluding vehicular assaults), ambushes, unprovoked attacks and missed firearms contained within the LEO Near Miss database.
The team identified five common lessons learned and reminders across the sample of near miss reports:
- In the absence of exigent circumstances, slow down, use proper tactics, request additional resources and plan your course of action.
- Pay attention to pre-assault indicators and characteristics of weapon concealment, and modify your tactics accordingly.
- Wear your body armor whenever you are identifiable as a police officer.
- Regardless of where you are or what you are doing, continuously scan the area to maintain situational awareness, and regularly communicate your location and situation to dispatch and fellow officers.
- Take your time to conduct thorough searches of prisoners, even if it is assumed another officer conducted a search. Remember, your life and the lives of fellow officers could depend on you completing a thorough search.
While none of these points should be new to anyone, the list should serve as a reminder that law enforcement officers can mitigate risks to officer safety. Complacency is, unfortunately, often the biggest culprit.
Building cultures of safety
Near misses represent opportunities to identify and address issues before anybody gets hurt or killed. Debrief and share near-miss incidents with your fellow officers and use the stories shared on LEO Near Miss to remind yourself of actions you can take to improve your safety during dangerous situations. Most importantly, hold each other accountable for safe practices and behaviors, such as wearing your seat belt or fighting complacency on “routine” calls.
The National Law Enforcement Roadway Safety Program (NLERSP) teaches the PALS model: Peer Accountability for Law Enforcement Safety. The concept of the PALS model is simple: Give your fellow officers permission to hold you accountable for safe practices so that when someone observes you doing something in an unsafe manner, it is easier for them to have that courageous conversation with you; you, in turn, agree to do the same for them. If we, as a profession, can hold each other accountable for safe practices and tactics and learn from our near misses, we can make great strides in improving officer safety.
For more information on LEO Near Miss or to share your near miss story with other officers, visit www.LEOnearmiss.org.
For more information on the NLERSP and improving officer safety on the roadways, visit www.LEOroadwaysafety.org.
For additional resources on officer safety, download Officer Down! A Police1 Survival Guide.