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Hendon Publishing

How Cops Die

As any good police administrator knows, no asset is more valuable than our personnel. The people who we hire, train, and work side by side with each day comprise the backbone of any successful law enforcement organization. Considering that our duties require ballistic vests, firearms, and often a barrage of other use of force options, our ability to create and maintain a safe job environment easily comes into question.


Historically, we have placed a heavy emphasis on firearms training, edged-weapon defense, tactical street survival, and active shooter incidents. While this instruction is imperative to bolster our ability to protect ourselves and community members, broadening our understanding of workplace threats will help to expand the strategies that we use to improve the long-term health and safety of our valuable staff.


There are clear and simple steps that can be taken by employees at all levels to enhance workplace safety for police officers.

Before exploring successful safety strategies, it is important to review current trends and to develop an understanding of the real threats to law enforcement officers. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund Research Bulletin on Law Enforcement Officer Deaths in 2013, 100 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty in 2013, representing an 18 percent decrease from 2012 and the least since 1944 when 91 officers died.


Over the last 50 years, Officer deaths peaked in 1974 at 280 and again in 2001 at 240, although that number was impacted by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center buildings in New York City.


Overall, the 100 deaths in 2013 are consistent with a gradual downward trend in police deaths.


Of course, a much larger number of officers are assaulted and/or injured annually in the line of duty. The FBI reported that in 2012, there were 52,901 officers who were assaulted on duty. Of those, 27 percent experienced injuries as a result of the assault (FBI 2012 Statistics on LEO Killed and Assaulted). Due to the nature of police work, on-the-job injuries may result in officers being limited to light duty, missing work for extended periods of time, or having to leave the job permanently.

The only way to protect our employees from injury and death is by taking the time to understand how and why officers are getting injured and killed. After reviewing job-related police fatality and injury statistics, it is clear that there are four major areas of focus regarding police deaths. These areas include traffic accidents, shooting incidents, physical health and fitness events, and mental health issues.


It should be noted that physical and mental health issues may be correlated to an employee’s ability to perform the job tasks and may impact other areas as well. For example, officers who are extremely overtired are much more likely to be involved in a car accident. While a traffic accident may be listed as the cause of death, the real contributing factor is exhaustion. Therefore, a critical element of any successful employee health program is recognition of the interconnectedness of all of these areas and ensuring that safety strategies equally target each one.


When contemplating these strategies, remember that every member of a police department shares the responsibility of creating a safer workplace. In my most recent book,

How Cops Die: Understanding and Preventing Duty-Related Deaths

, I address these four major areas of concern; traffic safety, police homicides by firearms, physical health, and mental health. Each area is discussed in detail and successful strategies to combat these issues are identified. These strategies are further broken down by rank so there is a clear understanding of what employees at all levels of an agency can do to work toward improving workplace safety.


To illustrate this concept of shared responsibility among the ranks, consider the very basic practice of wearing ballistic vests. How do you get 100 percent of an agency’s personnel to wear their vests? First, police administrators must write a policy that makes ballistic vests a mandatory part of the police uniform. Then all staff must be provided with vests that are fit and functional. Then, line supervisors must wear their vests to show support of the policy and to role model a commitment to safety. They must also address non-compliance when they see officers who are working without their vests.


Finally, officers must comply with the policy. Perhaps some officers do not want to wear their vests due to discomfort. They should research options. Would external vest carriers work better and would compliance with the mandate increase if external vests were allowed? It is up to the officer to write up a well-researched proposal and to submit it up the chain of command.


This simple example illustrates the critical role of each member of an agency to address a very serious safety topic. The focus should be on working toward changing the culture within an agency and that requires compliance and support at all levels. Any break in the chain will result in reduced compliance and ultimately, to a more dangerous work environment.

While I cannot include all of the strategies covered in the book or all of the steps that each member of an agency must take in order to ensure the success of the strategy, I have selected a few strategies that address each of the four contributors to employee deaths: traffic, firearms, physical health and mental health.



Seat belts are the simple solution that will have the biggest impact on the number of police officers killed in car accidents. Patrol personnel must wear their seat belts. For whatever excuses drivers and passengers may have, none is good enough to prevent all police personnel from wearing their seat belts. Police officers engage in high-risk driving every day; this includes racing to a call, pursuing a fleeing vehicle, and driving in inclement weather.


Further, the in-cruiser distractions including mobile data terminals, police radios, mounted radar and camera units, and the operation of lights and siren, add additional challenges to even the most skilled driver. Factor in other drivers who may operate unpredictably around a police cruiser and the danger only increases. Seat belts are a must.

A second solution to reduce traffic deaths is to ensure the visibility of officers on traffic scenes. Working the scene of a motor vehicle collision is an extremely dangerous part of our jobs. Lack of good communication with approaching drivers, poor visibility, and rubber-necking all contribute to secondary collisions at crash scenes. Ensuring that staff are aware of the heightened dangers at traffic scenes, training officers on how to best establish zones of safety on traffic scenes, mandating the use of and providing access to high-visibility vests and jackets, and providing adequate staffing levels will all help to reduce officer injury and death.


A third and final approach for combating police-involved motor vehicle collisions is ensuring that all personnel have access to and attend quality training. Trainings that address stopping distances at varying speeds, drowsy driving, and near-to-real driving simulators are most effective. Additionally, it is important to convey that many officers who die in collision are on routine patrol. Driver inattentiveness in the form of texting and cell phone use, and use of the in-cruiser computer system, are contributing factors.


Another invaluable training topic identifies the parallel between drowsy driving and drunk driving. Many studies have compared being awake for extended periods of time to levels of alcohol impairment that are over the legal limit. It is then up to street supervisors to attend these trainings and to encourage line personnel to do the same. Patrol officers must make a commitment to abide by these safety policies and to attend trainings that refresh their knowledge of the dangers of risky and inattentive driving practices.


Deaths by Firearm

Similar to seat belt use for traffic collisions, when it comes to shootings, no precaution is more important than wearing a ballistic vest. Police administrators must ensure that quality protective vests are provided to all staff and are replaced when vests exceed their usage recommendation. Every police department should have a policy that mandates that line personnel wear ballistic vests during their tours of duty.


Supervisors must support this policy by wearing their own vests and by addressing officers who are non-compliant.


A second critical factor in safety is access to quality, functional and effective equipment. In order for this to occur, several things need to be in place. People who use the equipment must be required to check it on a routine basis and have an effective mechanism to report malfunctions. Officers should know how to report problems with computers, radios, recording equipment, weapons, or medical equipment.


Another important element of safety is ensuring that street personnel have a wide array of weapons that can be used along the use of force continuum. New technologies are constantly being introduced to the police community and many involve less-lethal force options. Examples have included Tasers, OC spray and PepperBall guns, and less-lethal beanbags. Expanded use of force options allow officers to best meet the many threats we face.

Near-to-Real training is also important. Firing rounds at fixed targets is useful to bolster confidence and ensure weapon familiarity, but integrating other components into firearms training is a necessity. Officers should experience shooting at nighttime, with flashlights, firing at moving targets, and should have access to firearm simulators that provide shoot/don’t shoot scenarios. The more realistic the training, the more likely the person will be able to perform effectively on the street.


Physical Health Issues

The best way to combat physical health issues is to maintain a fitness program for employees.


There is some controversy around fitness programs regarding whether they should be mandatory or optional and whether employees should be allowed to exercise on duty or off duty.


Regardless of the program that an agency adopts, some sort of fitness program will enhance officer health, increase employee morale, and increase safety on the street when that employee engages in physical combat or foot chases. The onus of fitness is certainly the responsibility of each individual in any workplace, but providing an environment that integrates fitness into the workplace is a great way to support and maintain a culture of health within an agency.

Beyond exercise, being well-rested is another important building block that contributes to overall health and safety. Unfortunately, the police culture is one where lack of sleep due to extended hours and shift work has become the norm. Unfortunately, lack of sleep is strongly connected to officer safety on the street.


Overtired officers are more likely to fall asleep at the wheel and make poor judgments. Our jobs are challenging enough, but trying to do them while exhausted is a recipe for injury and death. Some strategies for improving alertness and reducing exhaustion are establishing maximum work limits per day, monitoring overtime and detail hours, and requiring approval for secondary jobs.


Exercise and sleep are lifestyle choices that will greatly impact an employee’s ability to be safe on the streets. There are some other, even simpler and often overlooked steps that can also impact physical safety. All personnel should ensure they wear protective gear when handling people and hazardous materials such as blood or saliva. Communicable diseases from bodily fluids need to be taken seriously.


Also, officers are frequently out in the weather, directing traffic, on foot patrol, or on bike patrol.


Wearing sunblock is an essential barrier of protection. Knowledge and use of good body mechanics regarding lifting heavy items is also important.


Mental Health Issues

Perhaps one of the most overlooked areas of police safety is that of mental health and wellness. Although there was some movement toward implementing new programs into police departments in the 1990s, the events of 9-11 brought public attention to the fact that first responders sometimes face after-event challenges such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety. This recognition thrust forward a variety of programs designed to respond to the mental health needs of public safety professionals.


Peer Support Teams (PST) within police agencies typically consist of a small group of police officers who have volunteered to be part of the team. Once selected, they attend a specialized training to provide them with the information they need to serve as a Peer Supporter. They are then available to meet with fellow employees who may be facing challenges in their personal lives, struggling with substance abuse, or even feeling the need to vent frustrations from within the workplace.


Critical Incident Stress Debriefings typically occur shortly after a specific incident. The first responders, sometimes divided by public service agency and sometimes not, then meet and talk about their experiences. The session typically is led by a licensed mental health professional who has specialized training in this area. Some events require multiple sessions and some require just one. The concept was developed in order to allow first responders to have a safe environment in which to share their feelings about their experiences and to support each other.

Thoughtful management practices go a long way. Anyone who has ever worked in a job environment that was poorly managed understands the connection between bad management and leadership and the resulting mental health consequences. Examples of poor leadership and supervision include poor communication, unfairness, disrespectful treatment, bullying, negativity, and many others.


For the department as a whole, these problem areas will result in low morale, poor retention, and ultimately, poor community service. For the individual, these issues are likely to result in stress, anxiety, depression, and anger. These stressors can then contribute to physical ailments such as general illness, headaches, ulcers, muscle aches, insomnia, heart problems, and increased blood pressure.

Comprehensive wellness programs are the future of any success police department that is seeking to improve and maintain morale, attract and retain employees, and to keep individual employees safe and alive. As police administrators, we should not limit our scope of employee safety to tactical street skills and firearms trainings. Instead, we should consider all the other components that can play a role in deadly encounters. The only way to protect our personnel is to embrace the concept of comprehensive safety and to design and implement strategies that target the many contributing factors to officer injury and death.


Jody Kasper has been with the Northampton Police Department since 1998 and is currently a Lieutenant. She is an adjunct professor at Elms College and the author of the books,

Progressive Police Supervision: A simple and effective approach for managing a police agency


Improving Motivation and Morale: A police leader’s guide

. She can be reached at:

Published in Law and Order, Feb 2015

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