In 2009, the Las Vegas Metropolitan (NV) Police Department experienced three shocking events just months apart that catalyzed the department to transform the agency’s culture of vehicle safety.1
In May 2009 an officer was responding to a domestic disturbance call. He was going about 109 mph in a 45 mph zone with no siren, lights, or seat belt. The officer hit a truck that was making a left-hand turn and became the first officer traffic fatality for the year, which prompted the agency to start thinking about what they can do differently to prevent officer fatalities. Then later, in October, two officers were involved in another accident. It is unknown where they were going, but they sped through a 45 mph intersection at 60+ mph without lights, a siren, or seat belts. A vehicle in front of them was turning; they lost control, went over the curb, and hit a pole. The officer driving was ejected and died soon after, while his partner survived. Finally, in November, a correctional officer was transporting some prisoners before sunrise. As with the other accidents, he was speeding, and crashed into a tractor trailer that was crossing in front and died.
These three officer fatalities became a brutal call for action. The LVMPD had to recognize the problem and do something about it. They started off by creating focus groups and networking with other agencies on best practices, which together led to the beginnings of an organizational change. The agency re-evaluated code 3 driving, and came back with a policy that limits officers speed to no more than 20 mph over the speed limit when driving code 3. LVMPD doubled their EVAC training staff to allow for officers who work the night shift to train in nighttime conditions. And all Bureau Commanders were brought in for training on the new policy changes and seat belt usage was reemphasized (even though it was always a requirement).
LVMPD also reached out to create ties between their community partners. They visited the local safety officer at UPS, receiving tips from an industry that drives for a living, and learned that before all UPS drivers begin their shifts, they receive daily messaging on safe driving practices. UPS is concerned about the safety of their drivers, citizens, and their brand, which is why they take driving very seriously. The LVMPD created a survey and assessed all of their employees. The 50-question survey focused on seat belt usage for on and off-duty situations. Out of the 5,000 employees at LVMPD, they received 1,800 completed surveys back. The results of this survey were startlingly honest, with most of the officers following a good adherence to seat belt usage, although they were not perfect. They learned that officers were concerned about getting trapped in their patrol cars and being slowed down by the belt. Responses showed that LVMPD should do the following to increase support and compliance from their officers:
To further address these concerns, LVMPD also had their officers’ practice taking off their seat belts until they felt comfortable with the timing.
LVMPD brought in Gordon Graham, a consultant on risk management, to work with leadership and create leadership videos. They also partnered with a local advertising agency and created a marketing campaign. The hero campaign, “Belt Up,” focused on three officers who were involved in horrific accidents but were able to walk away because they wore their seat belts. The campaign focuses on events that they were still able to attend—from a family reunion to seeing their children on a daily basis. Videos and posters were made around the three stories. The videos were shown at roll call and the posters were hung around the agency. Through the survey results, the department learned how important family is to their officers, so they included families in their campaign via their regular home mailers.
Today, supervisors are encouraged that if they see someone not wearing their seat belt, to pull them over and bring in their chain of command. It is essential that all officers understand the importance of vehicle safety. Based on what Reno (NV) Police Department does, LVMPD instilled a policy that if an officer is involved in an accident, they are required to go through a supervisor ride along.
Two years later, LVMPD has continued to take their message nationally via presentations and education. Law enforcement officers are always trying to do the right thing, but it doesn’t help if they get in an accident. Officers spend as much time in the car as they do with their family, and it isn’t safe when they become complacent—especially when more and more distractions are being put in patrol cars. Vehicle safety is brought up quarterly in leadership meetings, which offer creative, inexpensive solutions. A couple months ago, leadership was shown a video of horrific law enforcement accidents caught on camera via dash cams and were reminded that this can happen to anyone. At the end of the 12-minute video, the briefing room was silent. The leadership’s firm belief in the importance of driving safely makes it more likely the rest of the agency will follow suit. Safety sometimes demands a creative approach; the LVMPD is exploring many approaches to the safety of their officers.
In regard to vehicle safety, LVMPD still has issues that need to be resolved, such as inattention to driving, improper backing, and following too closely to other vehicles. However, the most important tool LVMPD uses is continuing to talk about it and not letting it fall off the table.
This article is dedicated to Officers Manor, Beitel, and Leach of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, and all of the other officers who have died in the line of duty.
The COPS Office
1 The information in this article was obtained through an interview with Deputy Chief Marc Joseph of LVMPD.