Why don’t cops wear seatbelts? How the demand for officer safety endangers police officers

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by Michael Sierra-Arévalo

In early 2015, the National President of the Fraternal Order of Police told the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, “now, more than ever, we see our officers in the cross-hairs of these criminals.”

By the end of 2015, officers slain in the line of duty dropped almost 15% from the previous year.

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Even with year-to-year fluctuations in the number of officers feloniously killed (i.e. not accidentally killed), overall trends in the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) data suggests a profession that is growing less deadly over time.

Data notwithstanding, the rhetoric of the “war on police” persists in print and on the air, and the perception of a world full of violence that might strike at any moment is alive and well among U.S. police officers.

But though much attention has (rightfully) focused on how hypervigilance or aggressive training and tactics can negatively affect the citizenry, there has been little attention paid to the price officers themselves might pay by being socialized to see their world through violence-tinted glasses.

After spending hundreds of hours with police officers on patrol, at crime scenes, and in training session in three U.S. cities, as well as interviewing nearly 100 officers, I find that police officers engage in behaviors that they believe keep them safe but, in fact, increase the chances of injury and death in the line of duty.

In particular, officers frequently choose to not wear departmentally-required seatbelts when on patrol because they believe that a seatbelt will prevent them from getting to their firearm or being able to quickly exit their vehicle to address a violent threat.

The Danger Imperative

Through a mix of both formal (e.g. academy curricula) and informal socialization (e.g. learning from other officers), police officers learn the various aspects of police work: state and local law, departmental procedure, and defensive tactics that range from pressure holds to the use of their department-issued firearm.

Beyond rules and techniques, trainees also learn how to see the world as police do, and are socialized into a frame that I call the danger imperative—the preoccupation with violence and the demand for officer safety.

Training Danger

Key to this is frame is understanding that even routine police work can turn deadly at a moment’s notice. To highlight this, officers are often shown graphic videos of calls “gone wrong,” such as when a routine car stop turns into a gun fight, officers’ final moments caught on camera.

These worst case scenarios inform live-action training exercises in the academy. An officer in Sunshine, located in the Southwestern U.S., told me:

Officer: …when you go to the whole academy…what do they teach you? Everybody wants to murder you. Right? So every time you go on the fucking traffic stop, whatever, especially at the academy, every scenario ends up with either a gun in the car and a guy shooting you or something sketchy going on…I’ve done this fucking scenario where they give you like a sims gun [simulation gun that shoots paint pellets] and if the [trainee] doesn’t see [the gun] you kill the cop. Walk up to the car, and the [trainee] says, “Hi, sir, how’s it going?” And if he doesn’t see the gun, when he walks back to his car you get out and you fucking murder him…But the problem is that you put them into that mindset.*

Sanctioned and Deviant Behaviors

Naturally, trainees learn departmentally-sanctioned methods for staying safe while on patrol. For example, officers are trained to keep their weapons angled away from someone they are speaking to, and to wait for backup when investigating a house with a ringing alarm and a door ajar.

However, officers are also taught deviant techniques for ensuring safety that are directly against department policy, such as not wearing a seatbelt. On the West Coast, a West River officer explained why her field training officer (FTO) taught her to not wear a seatbelt:

Officer: It’s an officer safety issue. The seatbelt might prevent you from being able to get to your gun or your spray, or it could snag on your belt if you’re trying to get out of your car quickly to chase a suspect.

MSA: And you were taught this in training?

Officer: Well, not officially. Department policy is we always wear our seatbelts, but unofficially we’re told not to. First day on the street it was ‘Forget it.’*

On the East Coast, an Elmont officer gave me similar a similar rationale:

Officer: I’d say 90% of us don’t wear our seatbelts. It’s just too much for us. Tactically…look at where my holster is [points to pistol holster that is obstructing the seatbelt buckle]: it’s too much. I’d say only 10% actually wear [a seatbelt].*

Unintended Consequences of the Danger Imperative

Though car crashes have accounted for nearly 30 percent of officer fatalities over the past decade, police officers in the cities I studied frequently leave their seatbelts off in the hopes of being ready to fight or give chase, even when driving at high speeds.

Thankfully, none of the officers I rode with got into any serious accidents while we were on patrol. That said, the consequences of the behaviors fostered by a world seen through the danger imperative can have unintended, but no less deadly consequences for officers.

An assistant chief in Elmont described an officer-on-officer crash that left one Elmont officer dead and another permanently comatose.

Assnt. Chief: …a prime example is the incident that I’m referring to with the two officers. The reason why the officer died is because he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. He got ejected and his own car ran over him, rolled over…It wasn’t a pretty sight. I mean, it was all internal injuries…Had he been wearing his seatbelt, he would have survived that crash. Probably not the other officer who’s a vegetable now…But [Reggie] would have survived that, definitely.

Despite the tragedy of these preventable deaths, these findings suggest that when the stakes of police work are cast as life or death-by-criminal, administrative data are unlikely to convince police to refrain from behavior that they believe will get them home safely.

What’s more, the danger imperative provides a potential mechanism through which bias operates, turning one person’s reach for a wallet into another’s “furtive movement,” or a 12-year old child into an 18-year old suspect.

By directly observing those tasked with social control, research can better understand the institutional processes and perceptions that can lead to unequal outcomes, and which cost citizens and police officers their lives.

Michael Sierra-Arévalo is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at Yale University, and an Affiliate Fellow at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies. This post is based on a working paper, “American Policing and the Danger Imperative”, available here.

* These quotes are reconstructed conversations from field notes taken during participant observations. The remaining quotes are from recorded interviews.

Image: Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

 

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