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Why police roadside assists can improve community relations

Cops just need a few pieces of equipment and some training to provide safe and quick solutions to two of the most common reasons for vehicle breakdowns

By Walt Brinker, P1 Contributor

Simple, safe and quick roadside assists to community members with disabled vehicles by police officers can generate goodwill and build bridges between police and communities they serve.

Police officers should consider advocating, or at least suggesting, to their agencies that officers provide - when operational priorities allow - roadside assists. Traditional law enforcement activities to ensure public safety must always have first priority, but when not performing first priority tasks of responding to calls, officers can perform lower priority tasks, such as assisting motorists with broken down vehicles.

Perhaps not all officers need to perform roadside assists. Equipping and training all officers might be an overreach; rather a few officers on each shift would be designated, trained and equipped to respond to roadside assist calls from other officers acting as spotters. Some large, urban jurisdictions already have resources dedicated to helping stranded motorists which may be more efficient than using any in-service officers; however, the positive public relations impact is greater when an in-service officer at least participates meaningfully in the assist, besides just summoning help.

The basis for my suggestion is extensive practical experience on what equipment and methods work best – from performing as a hobby well over 2,000 free-of-charge roadside assists for motorists with broken down vehicles. What convinced me of the potential for law enforcers winning hearts and minds this way was the many heartfelt thank-you’s I have received from assist recipients. I have trained 150 sheriff deputies in Cumberland County, North Carolina to perform such assists quickly and safely.

Common breakdown reasons

With a few pieces of equipment and some training officers can provide safe and quick solutions to two of the most common reasons for breakdowns:

1. Tires which have failed (flat, blown out, or separated tread)

2. Running out of gas

Tire-related issues constitute 75 percent of my assists. Out-of-gas issues are another five to 10 percent. The vast majority of my low-tech solutions apply to such low-risk assists.

Aware of likely concern about liability, I do not advocate officer assists for under-the-hood issues like jump starts, failed batteries, engine overheating and vehicle lock-outs.

Key items for police-provided roadside assists

Granted, officers already stow hazard support equipment, but there are several specific items which very likely will mean the difference between a successful and unsuccessful assist. Those items are:

1. Correct sockets for a variety of situations, including removal of rounded lug nuts, deeply recessed lug nuts, lug nuts with very little space between them and the rim’s holes, and locking lug nuts that the driver doesn’t have the key for.

2. Cheater bar for extra leverage with lug wrench, or breaker bar and extension bar, to remove very tight lug nuts.

3. Can of “PB Blaster” to help loosen rusted lug nuts.

4. Compact hydraulic jack, heavy duty pickup jack and jack stands, with lumber, to handle a variety of tire changing situations.

5. Compact 12-volt air compressor to re-inflate flat spare tires.

6. Hex wrenches to remove hub caps and permit access to lug nuts on common after-market rims.

7. Old beach towel to permit lying on the ground to position a jack without getting dirty.

8. Thin, cheap tarp to permit doing the same on wet ground.

9. Leather gloves to protect hands from exposed steel bands from blown tires.

10. Empty gas can to facilitate fetching fuel.

For more detailed instruction on roadside assists, this 50-minute video summarizes my book, “Roadside Survival: Low-Tech Solutions to Automobile Breakdowns”, and my list of “Tips and Equipment for Police Roadside Assists.”

Roadside safety

I am 72 years old, and I have never been injured while performing an assist. However, I suggest that for officer protection two officers be present – one to perform the assist and another in overwatch. Follow other department roadside safety policies and practices throughout the roadside assist.

Interested police officers can learn more about performing roadside assists in “Roadside Survival: Low-Tech Solutions to Automobile Breakdowns.”

About the author
Walt Brinker, 1966 West Point graduate, retired U.S. Army infantry lieutenant colonel and Vietnam War veteran and retired civilian project manager, has provided well over 2,000 free-of-charge roadside assists as a hobby. With experience from these assists he wrote a book, “Roadside Survival: Low-Tech Solutions to Automobile Breakdowns” for the everyday motorist. Receiving countless heartfelt thanks from those assisted, he reasoned that police could earn similar gratitude and respect from communities with whom they have strained relations. His “Tips and Equipment” list further empowers police to perform simple safe, quick assists. His training video summarizes the book and tips.