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Changing our culture to keep officers safer

Whether our profession made the conscious decision to change or we’ve bent to the pressures of society, the culture of law enforcement is ever-changing — let’s make it for the better

I just entered my 20th year in the law enforcement profession, and prior to that I watched my father do the job for 20 years. There is no doubt in my mind that being around my dad, his friends, and his job helped me make my career decision. It was the culture of the profession I observed that intrigued me so much.

There is a tradition, a creed, and an ideology that can be found nowhere else, and while these customs and practices are often positive, we must be honest and recognize when they are not. After all, we don’t see squad rooms full of cigarette smoke anymore, and while choir practice may still occur, we all know that by no means is it part of our overall culture.

Whether our profession made the conscious decision to change or we’ve bent to the pressures of what society expects, the culture of law enforcement is ever-changing. By eliminating unsafe practices, we’re constantly changing for the better.

The Training
The past 20 years have seen a major shift in how we train our officers. Our training is now interactive, scenario-based, and often focuses on issues that we at one time never mentioned. Those issues include things over which we have complete control, such as wearing our vests, using our seatbelts, and modifying our behavior behind the wheel.

I wholeheartedly believe that it is this shift in our training that has brought a reduction in line of duty deaths to a level we haven’t seen in 70 years.

Twenty years ago when I sat in the academy, no one told me that the majority of our cops never wore seat belts or that we lose more officers to suicide than violent attacks. These (and other) issues weren’t discussed, and quite honestly we were sometimes told the opposite.

I’ll never forget my field training officer telling me why I shouldn’t wear a seatbelt or why I had to drive faster. I didn’t question it. I just did what my training told me, and subsequently my bad habits meshed in with the culture. I was no different than most, and in fact, most reading this may have been present when a colleague was made fun of for wearing that vest or belt.

The Responsibility
For the past several years, I (and many others) have been vocal about the need for law enforcement to change certain parts of our culture that in the past has promoted unsafe practices and thus cost the lives of too many of our brothers and sisters. In the midst of that — and with the help of Police1 — we have asked that administrators be held accountable for not training their officers. At times we have placed the responsibility for safety on the shoulders of crime fighters themselves.

Danger lurks in the discussion of responsibility while still in the wake of tragedy — we must understand and acknowledge the need for sensitivity. I was reminded of this recently when I received an email from the sister of an officer killed years ago in a vehicle collision. Her brother’s department had used a picture of his car in a poster that was developed to teach others.

She was upset and hurt, and this exchange reminded me that we owe a dual duty in striving towards saving future lives. As we teach the living, we owe to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice our utmost respect.

Culture Change
Our heroes behind the badge aren’t perfect — mistakes are made in every profession, from accountant to zoologist. Unfortunately some of our mistakes produce unbearable tragedy, and many of these mistakes can be attributed to a culture that has taught us unsafe practices. We must attack this culture problem by giving our officers proper training information. Changing an unsafe culture will entail properly training every individual officer about their own personal responsibility.

We write many of our lessons in blood. We’ve been learning those lessons for decades, and we are much safer for it. Those who have sacrificed have made us safer, and we must honor that sacrifice by continuing our learning.

My wife and her family will never forget May 26, 1978. Known as the darkest day in Oklahoma Highway Patrol (OHP) history, three troopers lost their lives at the hands of a cowardly duo of prison escapees.

One of those troopers was the father-in-law that I would never meet: Lieutenant Pat Grimes. My wife was four years old and the pain remains. There were mistakes made in that incident, and my wife is comforted in knowing that the agency didn’t hide those mistakes. Shortly after the tragedy, OHP recreated the entire scenario, looking for ways to improve their practices. They learned, and she knows without a doubt that law enforcement in our state is safer today because of that.

Oklahoma Highway Patrol Colonel (ret.) Mike Grimes is the twin brother of Pat Grimes, and he recently told me that the analysis was done to help out other agencies.

“We restructured our manhunt procedures and roadblock procedures. It’s because of what we learned from losing three troopers.”

Colonel Grimes said that it was discovered that the department had a deficiency in equipment and it was quickly resolved. What OHP did after this unspeakable tragedy was courageous, and their actions over 35 years ago have potentially saved lives. We must do the same.

What Now
While we must learn from tragedy, there is no need to sit back and wait for those teaching points. Every agency has cultural issues that — if left unchecked — can lead to unsafe behavior.

Maybe it’s a look the other way when seat belts aren’t used, or it’s tracking response times, which will only make our officers drive faster. Whatever it is, the culture must be attacked.

There are no new ways for us to die, and thus there are no lessons for us to wait on. We know them, and it’s time to get to work. Do a risk assessment on your agency. Ask yourself, “Where will our next line of duty death come from?” and then go out there and make sure it doesn’t happen.

Culture is to be embraced, but also changed. Embrace the positive and change what will get us hurt.

Officer Safety issues are of paramount importance to us. Armed with the knowledge that vehicles have killed officers in higher numbers than have firearms in recent few years, we have brought on a columnist who focuses on law enforcement driver training and safer pursuits.
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