I recently had the opportunity to mingle with public entity risk managers from across the country at the national PRIMA conference in Atlanta. I took the opportunity to ask those I met (as often as I could, while trying not to be too annoying), “How can we reduce law enforcement auto accidents?” And while my data collection would not stand up to scientific scrutiny, I am confident it is a fair reflection of the situation. Two conclusions are clear:
- Law enforcement officers have a lot of auto accidents; and
- Law enforcement officers generally are immune from receiving traffic citations.
I found the answers to be very diverse, but all of them included some type of accountability, such as rewards or punishments for the officers. The most controversial suggestion was to enforce giving traffic tickets to law enforcement officers when appropriate (meaning that a citation would be given to officers, in any situation where a citation would be given to a citizen).
A few agencies I discussed this idea with claimed that their officers receive the same tickets as anyone else for breaking a traffic law. Most claimed just the opposite, saying even with other agencies investigating law enforcement officers’ accidents, citations are seldom issued. A recently retired deputy admitted that the risk of a traffic citation for law enforcement officers was remote. He believed that citations would not have any effect on the number of accidents involving officers, but rather indirect personnel incentives (e.g. promotions and pay raises) would have the best chance of affecting behavior changes, which would in turn reduce accidents.
A survey done by PoliceOne.com asking if officers would ticket an off-duty officer had these results:
- 3% said yes
- 38% said no
- 59% said it depended on the severity.[i]
Risk managers as a group held the belief that the threat of citations, would over time, change behavior and reduce accidents. The minority of agencies that give traffic citations to their law enforcement officers also claimed to have good accident records; this gives further credence to the idea that officers being “at-risk” for citations can help reduce accidents.
The group as a whole was very empathetic towards law enforcement officers and agreed that the two main causes of their poor vehicle accident records are, first, constant driving and, second, all the distractions inherent to the job (computers, radios, etc.).
Using an enterprise-wide risk management (ERM) approach may help bring a broader perspective. With the current misgivings in the news about law enforcement, whether justified or not, it is important to protect the agency’s reputation. If known by the public, police immunity from citations may do more damage to the agency’s objectives than the vehicle accidents.
My conclusion – all public entities with law enforcement should be providing some measure of accountability for officers’ vehicle accidents to help inculcate safe driving. I recommend officers receive citations when merited, especially if the violation causes an accident.
[i] PoliceOne.com. 2009 “Ticketing off duty officers: P1 Members speak out”