Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Chief’s Chronicle; New York State Association of Chiefs of Police. Reprinted with permission.
As I write this article, we are in the middle of a crisis and lockdown without precedent in recent history. While I am retired from active law enforcement, I remain involved as a police trainer and policy consultant through my job at Lexipol. As a result, I carefully watch and listen to how law enforcement is adapting to this crisis and handling the risk it creates for first responders. Obviously, officer safety is paramount in the effort to continue to provide essential police protection and service during the COVID-19 crisis. Whether it be wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE) or adapting new interview and report-taking procedures, safety is the underlying motivation.
Officer safety has been an essential component of my training for decades. In some of my recent classes I have included a discussion of Paul O’Neill, former U.S. treasury secretary and former CEO of Alcoa Aluminum, and his legacy of worker safety. Sadly, O’Neill passed away on April 18, 2020, after a long and diverse business and public sector career. His death provides another opportunity to explore his commitment to worker safety—and what we in law enforcement can learn from it.
The Power of Habit
Before becoming the treasury secretary under President George W. Bush, O’Neill was the CEO of the Aluminum Company of America, or Alcoa as it is more commonly known. O’Neill’s successes at Alcoa are documented in a book by Charles Duhigg called The Power of Habit. 
O’Neill was appointed CEO of Alcoa in the fall of 1987 and he wasted no time in creating controversy over his organizational priorities. Duhigg describes the now legendary meeting O’Neill had with a group of Wall Street investors and stock analysts at a Manhattan Hotel shortly after becoming CEO. Alcoa had been profitable but the company was having some difficulties. This led the Alcoa board to announce a new leader for the company—O’Neill.
As Duhigg recounts it, O’Neill walked into the room and began to explain his priorities: “I want to talk to you about worker safety. Every year numerous Alcoa workers are injured so badly that they miss a day of work. Our safety record is better than the general American workforce, especially considering that our employees work with metals that are 1500 degrees and machines that can rip a man’s arm off. But it’s not good enough. I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.”
The investors in attendance were confused by this message, as it was not the typical approach by a new CEO who would normally be focused on driving growth and delivering profits. As the group started to ask questions more related to making money, O’Neill kept bringing them back to safety. He tied the measurement of the company performance to its safety statistics. He explained that if Alcoa was able to bring injury rates down, “It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: they’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged.”
As the meeting ended, the concerned investors rushed out of the room and headed to the pay phones. Duhigg quotes one investor as calling his largest clients and telling them, “The board put a crazy hippie in charge and he’s going to kill the company. I ordered them to sell their stock immediately, but before everyone else in the room started calling their clients and telling them the same thing.”
Later, this investor realized, “It was literally the worst piece of advice I gave in my entire career.” Within one year Alcoa’s profits hit record highs and by the time O’Neill left the company 13 years later, the company’s net income was five times larger than when he arrived.
Oh—and Alcoa also became one of the safest companies in the world.
Safety and Culture
Ask any police officer what is operationally most important to them and they’re likely to say officer safety. Officers frequently walk into situations they may have little or no control over, instead reacting to the actions of others. Enforcement actions can become antagonistic and dangerous. Decisions must be made about a situation with little or no information.
Organizational priorities reflect organizational values, which then become part of the culture. Officer safety must be a priority in law enforcement agencies. And not just as lip service, but as a deeply embedded and sincere priority.
Officers are, or should be, trained throughout their careers on officer safety techniques and practices. Yet occasionally officers will, under the guise of officer safety, act in a manner that puts them at increased risk. Misplaced priorities may be partially responsible for this—for example, rushing up to a stolen car to arrest the occupants because the officer is afraid they may flee if the officer waits to do a proper high risk stop. The motive for such actions is admirable; the officer wants to arrest a criminal suspect. But ignoring the tactics they learned to make a dangerous situation as safe as possible is not a reasonable trade off. An agency culture must prioritize the safety of the officer and the protection of innocent persons over making arrests. This is not a one or the other proposition—officers must understand they need to be as safe as possible and then make the arrest. The results do not justify compromising the process.
Similarly, Alcoa employees dealt with molten metals and machinery that can be dangerous if proper safety procedures are not followed. For example, early in his tenure at Alcoa, O’Neill received a late-night phone call that an employee at a plant was killed by a piece of machinery called an extrusion press that had jammed. The young man climbed over a yellow safety wall in full view of two managers who made no effort to stop him. He cleared the jam, which allowed the machine to immediately continue to function. A metal arm struck the man, crushing his skull and killing him instantly. He left behind a pregnant wife. His motive was also admirable; he wanted to clear the machine so production would continue. The old culture allowed that to happen because production was more important than anything else.
O’Neill called an emergency meeting with the plant executives and painstakingly reviewed all the circumstances of the accident. His conclusion? “We killed this man. It’s my failure of leadership. I caused his death. And it’s the failure of all of you in the chain of command.”
The key to the focus O’Neill brought on safety was that no one could disagree with it. It not only is the right focus from a moral standpoint, but it also helps to fulfill essential employee satisfiers and motivators—feeling valued, appreciated and having influence over their work environment. For Alcoa, this led not only to significantly reduced on-the-job injuries, but also greatly increased production and efficiencies. Employees worked with management on improvements to company processes. But they also looked out for each other because safety not only became a priority of employees, it became their responsibility.
In a speech O’Neill gave some time after he left Alcoa, he discussed an example of the employee embrace of safety practices. A reporter was visiting a large plant in Mississippi. He parked his car in the pouring rain but did not have an umbrella. He exited his car, and as he started to run across the parking lot, a voice called out telling him to stop. An Alcoa employee approached him with an umbrella and said, “I don’t know who you are, but we really care about safety here. It’s wet, the pavement is slick, you’re likely to fall and hurt yourself, and we don’t let that happen here.” The man then shared his umbrella with the reporter and brought him safely into the building.
Takeaways for Law Enforcement
Organizational priorities reflect organizational values, which then become part of the culture. Officer safety must be a priority in law enforcement agencies. And not just as lip service, but as a deeply embedded and sincere priority. When something bad happens, blame is easy but can also be counterproductive. If you do not find the root cause of the issue, it’s all too easy for the bad event to happen again.
Take for example an officer who is injured or killed in a car crash because the officer did not have their seat belt on—in violation of department policy. While the officer has responsibility, the blame may not fully rest on them. How did this happen? Were first-line supervisors aware prior to the accident that the officer did not regularly wear their seat belt but chose not to do anything about it? Did the officer’s peers know and also chose not to say anything about it? If either of those answers is yes, then this is an organizational failure and safety is not a true priority.
In my previous example of the officer rushing up to a stolen car, the priority for the officer was making the arrest. The Alcoa employee (and the managers standing by) who climbed over the safety rail to clear the machine had continued production as a priority. In both situations the person involved, while well intentioned, had not been sufficiently influenced by the organization to understand that the individual is the most important thing. Alcoa will continue as a company regardless whether that one jammed machine is cleared immediately or later pursuant to proper safety procedures.
Similarly, the person who stole the car may get away initially, but also may be arrested by other officers or later after the collection of physical evidence. In the police example, the questions we ask are:
- Why did the officer act this way?
- Were the actions contrary to training? When was the last training performed? Was the training sufficient and effective?
- Did supervisors or co-workers know this officer was prone to such actions?
- Do or could other officers act the same way because policy and procedure is not being reinforced by first-line supervisors?
If after doing such an inquiry, the answers all come out in favor of the agency and it appears the officer is the problem, then discipline may be necessary and appropriate. But the process to get to that point is critical—because it may just as easily reveal a flaw in the agency’s procedures, policies or training.
Alcoa’s leadership discovered their focus on worker safety led to increases in efficiency and profit. Similarly, law enforcement agencies that place officer safety at the top of their priorities experience additional benefits. The safer an officer acts, the more legal the result will be, and vice versa. If an officer takes the time to carefully assess a person for threat indicators, then they are at the same time assessing factors that could indicate the person is involved in criminal behavior. This thought process can make it easier, for example, to justify a frisk that was undertaken when the officer was ready to do it, had backup present and had the factors to legally support it.
Taken in this perspective, officer safety as a priority ties right into another critical agency priority—constitutional policing.
- Duhigg C. (2012) The Power of Habit. Random House Publishing Group. Author’s note: I would recommend this book to any administrator or trainer. It has influenced my thinking and course content since I read the book a few years ago.
- Paul O’Neill on Safety Leadership. Video from a presentation to a consumer packaged goods company. Accessed 7/5/20 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gvOrYuPBEA.