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March 2013 · Volume 95 · Number 2

Cover Story

The Necessary Truths about Police Safety

Insights into developing a culture of safety and wellness

by Darrel Stephens and Leonard Matarese

Two agencies within the U.S. Department of Justice have formed a partnership to address the major increase in deaths of law enforcement officers in the line of duty from 2009 to 2011 (NLEOMF, 2011). U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder requested the initiative that resulted in the July 2011 partnership of the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). Although deaths decreased in 2012, police agencies face several important, long-standing issues in improving officer safety and wellness.

While the effort initially focused on line-of-duty deaths of law enforcement officers, it quickly became clear that improving officer safety and reducing the costs associated with injuries was going to require a broader approach. Of increasingly greater concern was the huge and often underreported cost to local government from officer injuries and illnesses.

Injured-on-duty (IOD) costs are a problem for all police agencies, regardless of size. In smaller agencies, however, the costs can be financially devastating. There are approximately 18,000 police agencies in the United States. Of these, approximately 49 percent have nine or fewer officers, 5 percent have between 10 and 24 officers, and the remaining 46 percent of these agencies have 25 or more officers (Bureau of Justice Statistics).

A good number of ICMA members manage communities with smaller police forces. For the vast majority of local police agencies, a loss of one or two officers—even for a relatively short term—can dramatically increase costs because of the necessity to pay overtime, which is generated by the need to cover minimum staffing requirements. In a 20-officer department, covering two vacant positions through overtime adds 15 percent to personnel costs.

BJA and COPS created the Officer Safety and Wellness (OSW) Group to examine safety issues and provide information to the law enforcement field that could help reduce injuries and deaths. OSW identified 16 focus areas to guide work in meetings held in July and September 2011. Since that time, OSW has addressed six of these priorities:

  • Officer gunfire injuries.
  • Officer deaths.
  • Vehicle operation.
  • Risk management.

  • Education and training.
  • Leadership’s role in developing a culture of safety.

This article discusses OSW meeting topics along with some of the key recommendations that resulted from these deliberations.

Officer Gunfire and Deaths

For the first time in more than a decade, the number of officers killed in the line of duty from firearms increased in 2011 for the third consecutive year (NELOMF, 2011. See Figure 1.) The intentional killing of a police officer has enormous impacts on the community, the police agency, and officers’ families. While any loss of life to violence is tragic, the situation in which officers who lose their lives while protecting and serving their community is particularly devastating. It is a stark reminder to all officers of their vulnerability.

OSW engaged in a day of intense discussions on gunfire deaths and injuries, including a session on the research—what we know and don’t know—presented by Professor Robert Kaminski from the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of South Carolina. Police Chief Jane Castor, Tampa, Florida, also shared her experiences in the shooting deaths of two officers on a traffic stop and the four-day search for the suspect.

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Deputy Chief Benson Fairow, formerly with the Oakland, California, police department, described the events of March 21, 2009, when a lone gunman on a traffic stop killed two Oakland officers. The same gunman also shot and killed two other officers when they were searching an apartment for the suspect.

Senior Fellow James “Chips” Stewart from the CNA Corporation had conducted independent reviews of the incidents in Tampa and Oakland as well as one that occurred in Baltimore. He also shared lessons learned from the three cases.

Based on the research, case studies, background reading, individual expertise, and discussions, here is a summary of some of the OSW Group observations and recommendations:

  • A broader, more encompassing database should be developed that includes line-of-duty deaths and assaults, demographics on offenders and officers, information on the types of calls that result in deaths and assaults, and lessons learned from incidents.
  • Safety products should be evaluated to determine effectiveness.
  • Police agencies should have current policies on:
    • Incident command.
    • Officer deaths (notifications, family liaison, funeral planning).
    • Critical incident stress debriefing.
    • Safety equipment (vests, seat belts).
    • Clear use of force and reporting directives.
    • Communications (external and internal).
    • Memorandums of understanding with neighboring jurisdictions.
  • Training in critical thinking and decision making would improve officers’ ability to work through these situations.
  • A process should be created to routinely inform officers across the country of officer gunfire death and injury situations that provides officers’ insight into the incidents and any lessons learned.
  • Departments should consider alternatives to the way traffic stops are conducted. Maryland State Police troopers often approach a vehicle they have stopped on the passenger side. The driver does not expect it, the trooper is taken out of the stream of traffic, and the view of the driver is better.
  • A communications strategy should be developed. Effective communications is even more difficult in high-stress and high-profile events. Roles, responsibilities, and tactics should be defined in advance.
  • Departments should develop a process for objective after-action review of these incidents and take steps to correct any problems that are identified.

Vehicle Operation

Deaths and injuries from traffic crashes have been a problem for the police for some years. Officers must drive in all kinds of conditions and are expected to be able to perform various tasks at the time their vehicle is in motion.

While on patrol, they must be mindful of the radio, computers, telephones, license plate readers, and radar at the same time they are observing their surroundings. Under the conditions in which they drive, one can expect crashes will occur. Yet, some officers are rarely involved in crashes while others seem to have great difficulty avoiding them.

OSW heard from a panel of experts on three different aspects of vehicle operations. The first presentation focused on a comprehensive research initiative of the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (CalPOST). Although there has not been much research on officer-involved crashes, a general profile of the problem has emerged:

  • Primary victim: male, ages mid 20s to mid 30s (Young Noh, 2011).
  • Contributing behaviors: unsafe speed, red light/stop sign violations, improper turning (Young Noh, 2011).
  • Officers with in-service driving simulator and/or behind-the-wheel training had lower crash rates than officers without (CalPOST, 2009).
  • Majority of injuries and fatalities suffered in officer-involved collisions were members of the public: 50 percent of serious injuries and 83 percent of fatalities, including both suspect and bystanders (Rix, Walker, and Brown, 1997).

The second presentation was a case study from the Las Vegas Metropolitan (Nevada) Police Department (LVMPD). In a six-month period, May to November 2009, LVMPD experienced the tragic loss of three officers in vehicle crashes.

Two of the officers were not wearing safety belts, and one was thrown from the car. In two cases, emergency equipment was not in operation despite the vehicles travelling well above the speed limit.

LVMPD sought to develop a better understanding of the problem. The department partnered with an advertising agency, participated in ride-a-longs, and surveyed officers to gain insight into their habits and concerns.

It also looked to the private sector with a visit to United Parcel Service, where employees receive a safe driving message every day. LVMPD’s reviews led to several policy changes launched during a meeting of all of the department’s command-level personnel.

Changes included emergency vehicle operations course (EVOC) training every year for the first three years and every other year after that, with online training annually. Officers who fail to pass the training are not permitted to drive.

An emphasis has also been placed on wearing seat belts; a cap of 20 miles per hour over the posted speed limit has been established when driving under emergency conditions other than pursuits; and the Accident Review Board was given more authority and expected to apply progressive discipline in cases where the officer is at fault.

The final presentation reported on research at Mississippi State University funded by the National Institute of Justice that used driving simulators to show the impact of distractions created by equipment in the patrol car that officers have to use while driving.

OSW Group Composition

Participants in the Officer Safety and Wellness (OSW) Group include a core of 35 representatives who represent police associations and unions, federal government agencies, academics, local government organizations, and law enforcement agencies, including ICMA. The core group is supplemented at each meeting with subject-matter experts on the topic under discussion.

OSW Group members heard from Teena Garrison, professor, Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems at Mississippi State University, who, along with colleagues, is studying the impact of in-car communications devices on patrol officer performance. Preliminary results indicate that when the use of coded language is paired with the use of a display-echoing communication with dispatch, or when natural language is used without such a display, accuracy on a test of situation awareness was similar to a control condition without distraction. This provides evidence that police departments should be made more aware of how certain technologies and practices interact.

The National Institute of Justice supports several projects aimed at understanding the circumstances under which officers drive and become involved in vehicle crashes, including one being conducted by the RAND Corporation on the causes of injuries and deaths. Others include University of South Carolina researchers, who are working on evidence-based solutions to officer-involved crashes; and a project by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is looking at mitigating and warning of traffic threats to police stopped along the roadside.

Risk Management

Risk management programs have been a part of local government organizations for years. Their purpose is to minimize organizational exposure to risk, including employee injuries. Although local governments generally have risk management programs that work with police, relatively few large police agencies have their own.

In a 2005 telephone survey of police agencies, author Carol Archbold, professor, Department of Criminal Justice and Political Science at North Dakota State University, learned that agencies identified risk management as a tool to control liability within their organizations (Archbold, 2005).

Risk management was discussed at two OSW meetings. In the first discussion, Toronto, Canada’s police service risk management program was presented for consideration.

That city’s risk management unit is a part of the professional standards function within the “corporate command” area of the agency. The unit addresses risk management from these perspectives:

  • Risk of officer.
  • Risk of public/to public.
  • Risk to organization.
  • Damage to organization.
  • Civil suits.

In the second risk management discussion, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Malcolm Sparrow was asked to share his thinking about and experience in dealing with harm reduction and risk management. In the introduction of his most recent book The Character of Harms: Operational Challenges in Control, Sparrow urges the regulatory community to “pick important problems and fix them” (Sparrow, 2008). He goes on to say:

“However simple that sounds, it turns out that organizing around carefully selected and important pieces of a risk—rather than around traditional programmatic or functional tasks, or around core-high-volume operational processes—is extraordinarily hard to do. Even if they manage to do it once for something special, many organizations have no place for such conduct within their routine operations,” (Sparrow, 2008).

Sparrow discussed the design choices in risk management: how to (a) define, (b) divide, (c) distribute, and (d) carry out the work of controlling harms, and he also presented choices that can be used to help control and reduce harm from officer injuries and death.

Case Study: Municipal Pooling Authority, Walnut Creek, California

Situation: The Municipal Pooling Authority, located in Walnut Creek, California, provides risk management services to 14 police departments and 20 local governments mostly located in Contra Costa County, California. Prior to working with Future Industrial Technologies, Inc. (F.I.T.), the police departments were experiencing a rising number of injuries resulting in a substantial trend of increasing workers’ compensation costs.

Solution: F.I.T. recommended the Backsafe® program customized for law enforcement, with both classroom training and an obstacle course involving the use of an actual police car in a police station setting.

Results: In the two complete fiscal years subsequent to the program, a reduction in the lift, push, and pull type of injuries by 60 percent has been documented and a reduction in the cost of those injuries by approximately 90 percent. The police agencies believe that the effort to address police injuries has produced some synergistic benefits, with respect to the entire police workers’ compensation program.

The overall cost of police injuries after the implementation of the program decreased from $3.5 million per year to $1 million per year over a two-year period of time, representing a 70 percent decrease.

Source: Future Industrial Technologies, Inc.

Leadership’s Role in Creating a Culture of Safety

In every one of the OSW Group discussions, the issue of law enforcement culture came up as everyone worked to identify ways of reducing officer deaths and injuries. There are many variations on the definition of organizational culture, but at its simplest form it is “how things are done around here” (Deal and Kennedy, 1982). How things are done reflects a complex set of norms and values in the organization that may have developed over the years.

In policing, there is a tendency to accept injuries as part of the risk of the job and a reluctance to do the type of analysis required to learn from mistakes. A great many things influence culture, but it is clear the chief executive officer plays a critically important role in changing culture.

The Fairfax County, Virginia, and the Baca Raton, Florida, police departments are good examples of agencies that have made a strong effort at creating a culture of safety within their organizations. Both have a broad range of programs aimed at promoting safety and fitness.

Fairfax County, Virginia, Police Chief David Rohrer established a full-time officer safety position with significant authority that is supported by part-time safety officers in each of its divisions. The overall success of the department’s emphasis on safety was apparent by the end of FY2010.

According to the county division of risk management, the number of police department worker’s compensation claims decreased 29 percent from FY2009 to FY2010. Vehicle collision claims dropped over the same period by 18 percent. The total number of safety-related claims in FY2010 dropped 23.7 percent from FY09. The numbers have been maintained at a favorable level since then (Kapinos, 2012).

A police department’s workforce and those who represent it also heavily influence organizational culture. Detective Bob Cherry is a 20-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department and president of the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3. He has played a key role in working with department management to reduce officer-involved vehicle crashes and pass such legislation as the “move over” law, a law that went into effect on October 1, 2010, and requires motorists to change lanes when they are approaching an emergency vehicle with lights on that is stopped on the side of the road. Cherry argues that the police need a sustained and consistent educational campaign aimed at safety on both a national and agency level.

Captain Adrienne Quigley of the Arlington County, Virginia, Police Department suggests officer safety issues are a bigger problem than many realize. She points to these statistics:

  • Based on established incidence rates, law enforcement officers sustain approximately 106,950 injuries per year, only 15,000 to 16,000 of which are attributable to assault (U.S. Department of Labor, 2011).
  • A law enforcement officer who is not fit and has an additional risk factor is 6.6 times more likely to develop coronary heart disease (Collingwood et al, 1998).
  • Some 20 percent of the average law enforcement agency’s workforce is responsible for 80 percent of the costs (Collingwood et al, 1998).
  • Average cost of an in-service heart attack is between $400,000 and $700,000 (Smith and Tooker, 2005).
  • For every $1 invested in a fitness and wellness program, the return ranges from $2 to $5 in the form of reduced injuries, lost time, and so on (Tooker and Cashwell, 2008).

Quigley recommends that managers take these actions:

  • Make injury mitigation a priority.
  • Adopt and enforce policies that keep officers safe, including foot pursuits, seat-belt policies, and fatigue monitoring.
  • Provide officers with equipment and training to reduce injuries.
  • Recognize that a true culture of safety extends to off duty.
  • Identify potential pitfalls and work to eliminate them.

Establishing a Culture of Safety

Communities have a risk management program in place. Oftentimes, however, the police department does not receive the same scrutiny that the public works department, for example, receives. Far too often police officer injuries are accepted as just part of a dangerous job. In reality, a meaningful risk management program in police departments can reduce injuries and associated costs.

Accomplishing this will require leadership not only from the police chief but from the local government chief administrator as well. Establishing a culture of safety should be one of the primary goals of any department head and an area that appointed administrators and elected officials must insist be a critical performance measure.

The COPS/BJA Officer Safety and Wellness Group has made an important contribution to increasing awareness of and focus on reducing deaths and injuries through its discussions and the dissemination of information to the field. Its work will continue over the next couple of years as the group addresses such issues as physical and psychological health.

OSW will also revisit the topics of vehicle operation and gunfire deaths and injuries so they may be explored in greater depth with a view toward creating a strong agency and industry-based culture of safety. All OSW meeting summary reports are available on the COPS Office OSW Group website at www.cops.usdoj.gov.


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Smith, J. E. Jr. and Tooker, G.Gregory. 2005. “Health and Fitness in Law Enforcement: A Voluntary Model Program Response to a Critical Issue.” CALEA Update, no. 87. http://www.calea.org/calea-update-magazine/issue/87
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Tooker, G. Gregory and Cashwell, David D. 2008. “Revisiting the Fitness and Health in Law Enforcement Model Program,” CALEA Update, no. 96. http://www.calea.org/calea-update-magazine/issue-96/revisiting-fitness-health-law-enforcement-model-program
United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, TED: The Editors Desk (March 3, 2011) Retrieved July 13, 2011 from http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2011/ted_20110303_data.htm
Young Noh, Eun. 2011. Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes. NHTSA Technical Report. http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811411.pdf

Darrel Stephens, a former police chief, is executive director, Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, Charlotte, North Carolina (stephens@majorcitieschiefs.com). Leonard Matarese, ICMA-CM, IPMA-CP, is director, research and project development, ICMA Center for Public Safety Management, Washington, D.C. (lmatarese@icma.org).

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