By Robert Martinez, Deputy Commissioner, New York City Police Department
When we think of the safety of law enforcement officers, we usually think of the dangers they face from armed criminals. But when they drive a department vehicle, they also face the same kinds of dangers as every other fleet driver, with one difference: to do their jobs properly, they are forced into high-risk behaviors, like high-speed chases and interactions with drivers on the shoulders of roadways with fast traffic, often at night.
So, whether a law enforcement fleet is managed on a stand-alone basis or by an administrator who also handles civilian fleets, law enforcement fleet safety represents a greater challenge than the average fleet, often further complicated by politics and bureaucratic pecking order priorities.
How big is the challenge? The National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Fund reports that from January 1, 2018 to November 13, 2018 there were 120 Police officer fatalities. Over that period, 39, or 32.5 percent of them were traffic-related. In 2017, the same period had 42 traffic-related fatalities, so 2018 was a little better but not good enough.
PoliceOne.com, a news and information website for the law enforcement community, is trying to reduce the total number of law enforcement fatalities through a program called “Below 100”. They publish articles, support training, and create a dialogue and conversation to educate offices on how to stay alive. Unfortunately, police culture is one that sometimes requires someone to hit them in the head to get them to understand that a police officer isn’t Superman or Superwoman.
Many of these law enforcement fatalities are from single-vehicle collisions with trees or light poles, and in some cases the officer was not wearing his or her seat belt. Speed has also played a factor in many of these crashes. As per National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Report (DOT HS 811 411) Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes and other reports, more officers are dying from vehicle related events than assailant gunfire since 1990.
Part of the equation for reducing the number of fatalities is for the officer to follow the five straightforward tenets that Policeone.com recommends. They are: wear your seat belt, wear your vest, watch your speed, what’s important now? (WIN?), and counter-complacency kills. Below 100 training is about decisions, and helping officers protect themselves from themselves. It takes note of the fact that law enforcement vehicles can be more deadly than an active shooter.
What can the fleet manager do? Start with the foundation, the vehicle. When evaluating what vehicle to acquire, I look at the mission of the vehicle as well as safety. Law enforcement vehicles have many missions: some are city patrol, off road, beach patrol, and many others. My suggestion is to do your homework and sit with the end-user to discuss the options depending on mission or application. There is a lot of information available online, at trade shows, and in magazines. Within the police world there are two model programs that evaluate police vehicles. One is the Michigan State Police vehicle evaluation and the other is the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department vehicle testing.
The Michigan State Police vehicle evaluation considers police vehicle sedans, SUVs, and motorcycles. The evaluation consists of brake testing, acceleration and top speed, vehicle dynamics, ergonomics and communications, and fuel economy. This program started in the 1950s, with the goal of identifying the best vehicle for the mission of the Michigan State Police. Most of the vehicles tested are called pursuit-capable by the original manufacturer. This is a change from past years when OEMs would use the term “Pursuit Rated”. This is important to understand, because there is no sanctioning body to give any vehicle this type of rating. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) supports this program, but also does not certify any vehicles for police use.
Many law enforcement departments have very different policies pertaining to when to pursue or not. Pursuits add liability and danger to both the police officer and the general public. Letting bad guys go is a liability for public safety, too. In today’s world, technology is reducing the need to pursue bad guys. Some of these technologies are license plate readers, closed circuit and wide area cameras, On-Star, Easy Pass tolls, auto trackers, and cell phone tracking.
Once the decision is made as to what vehicle best fits the mission, other decisions need to be made. Some of these decisions are: four-wheel or all-wheel drive, front- or rear-wheel drive, engine size, hybrid or full electric, and police package pursuit capable. After that is figured out, a host of additional safety-related features need to be considered, including emergency response lighting, siren, cage, push bumpers, computers, ballistic glass or panels, or ballistic floor mats. Some of the newer technologies are collision avoidance systems, ballistic floor mats, built-in computer screens, and some autonomous vehicle features.
Management of any law enforcement fleet is a huge responsibility, whether it’s just trying to keep the police fleet available 24/7 with a 95% in-service rate or reducing officer vehicle fatalities. We must also work within our budgets and the politics of the day. Some days you will have to fight the fight to keep your fleet up to date and within a safe life cycle replacement plan. Let’s do our part in helping Policeone.com reducing officer fatalities to less than 100 for 2019.
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