By Tami Abdollah, December 11, 2013
If you've ever been pulled over by for not wearing a seat belt, there's a decent chance the officer wasn't buckled up either.
86 percent of Americans now wear seat belts, an upcoming study by
California's Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training
estimates that roughly half of officers don't wear them.
traffic-related fatalities the leading cause of on-duty officer death,
departments nationwide are buckling down to get officers to buckle up.
that can save a person's life should be on a high priority of being
enforced," said Richard Ashton, a former police chief who has studied
officer safety for more than a decade with the International Association
of Chiefs of Police.
The Los Angeles Police Department has begun a seat belt-education
effort after Inspector General Alex Bustamante found up to 37 percent
of officers involved in collisions in 2012 weren't wearing them.
laws mandating seat belt use often exclude police, but the LAPD and
most other departments require them in all but certain circumstances.
the costs of not doing so are clear. In 14 of the last 15 years, it
wasn't a shooting but a traffic incident that was the leading cause of
officer deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration. And of 733 police officers killed in a vehicular
accident from 1980 through 2008, 42 percent weren't wearing seat belts.
"This is such low-hanging fruit. This fruit is on the ground,
almost," said Steve Soboroff, president of the L.A. Police Commission,
at a recent meeting of the department's civilian oversight board.
New recruits grew up wearing seat belts, though they often don't on
duty because senior officers don't use them. Some buckle them in to
disable the alarm, belt them out of the way or cut them out entirely.
of the problem is blamed on what experts call the myth of a "ninja
assassin," an assailant whose ambush attack would leave officers
vulnerable because a seat belt would interfere with their ability to
reach for their gun.
"No one can tell you an actual story about it (and) I haven't been able to document it at all," Ashton said.
LAPD is using the 25th anniversary of a tragedy to highlight the
problem. On Dec. 12, 1988, three officers died after being thrown from
two LAPD cruisers they were in that collided at a Skid Row intersection.
One officer left behind a pregnant fiancee; another left a pregnant
The sole survivor, Venson Drake, a 28-year-old probationary officer on his second day in the field, was buckled in.
Drake, who just retired at 53, said rookies often face pressure
to conform and copy their training officer. Bustamante found commanders
rarely disciplined officers for not wearing seat belts.
blame that on the department," Drake said. "They say they emphasize seat
belts, but they really don't. If they start hitting us in our
pocketbooks or we start taking suspension days for it, officers are
going to buckle up."
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said he prefers
educating rather than punishing officers who aren't wearing seat belts
because usually it's a well-intentioned effort to more speedily help the
To that end, the department has created a training video for the
anniversary of the collision - the worst in its history - to educate its
"They're not listening to the training, and they're still
driving out there like they're invincible," said Capt. Ann Young, who
heads the LAPD's Central Traffic Division and worked on the video. "If
you stop and think for a minute, you know, I've got a loved one to get
home to, they're depending on me every night."
And ultimately, she
noted, if officers don't buckle up and they're in a wreck, they're not
able to help the public they're rushing to aid.
Over the last three years, hundreds of law-enforcement agencies
in more than 25 states participated in a program emphasizing, among
other safety measures, seat-belt use to keep officer fatalities below
100 a year.
The California Highway Patrol implemented the program this year and has nearly 100 percent seat-belt compliance.
have to write reports over and over on fatalities, and not wearing a
seat belt is always a factor," said Jon Hamm, head of the California
Association of Highway Patrolmen. "I mean, what other education can you