The worst day in an officer’s career is arguably the one that leads to a funeral. I have attended five public safety-related funerals in which I personally knew the deceased. Needless to say, each line-of-duty death was horribly tragic.
What is perhaps equally tragic is that each death was potentially preventable. Every one of these deaths had a common external thread in which I not only knew individual, but also knew of certain traits and circumstances that led me to not be completely surprised when tragedy struck. While they were all unexpected, each also had an “in hindsight” element that, if acted on, could have possibly prevented the worst day of anyone’s police career.
Head in the Clouds
The span started in the late 1980s, when a fellow pilot was unexpectedly killed in a helicopter accident. He had invertedly flown into the clouds and lost control of the helicopter, resulting in an impact with the ground that likely took his life immediately. “How could he have done that?” I remember thinking. Just as vividly, though, I remember how he’d been telling me the night before his accident about the horrible divorce he was going through. I knew he was emotionally distracted and even asked him if he was OK to fly. “Of course I am,” I recall him saying.
He was wrong, and as a result, I was not overly surprised to hear about his crash the next day. I knew he wasn’t right, and in hindsight I should have acted. I was wrong too.
Stumbling Into Tragedy
The most recent funeral was 15 years ago. While rescuing a stranded hiker, my friend and fellow police co-worker accidentally placed his head into the spinning main rotor of a helicopter. He was dead before falling to the ground. What is ironic is that he was perhaps one of the most highly trained, highly experienced officers in the unit. Let me put it this way: If my own family was in trouble, I would have wanted him to be the one coming to help … he was that good and that respected. He was truly one of the best.
Leading up to the accident, the well-established agency protocols were being followed to a tee. Just moments prior to the accident, he had even prompted a crew briefing to highlight the dangers and initiate proper cautions. This was a by-the-book mission being conducted by one of the best. “How does this even remotely happen?” I recall thinking. “How did one of the top officers suddenly lose his life in an accident that appeared to be his own fault?”
Again, in hindsight, it shouldn’t have been all that surprising. The fallen officer had a well-deserved reputation, but at times could be a bit of a klutz. My last in-person memory of him was a time when he was entering a police work facility. As he entered the door, the first thing he said was how excited he was to work that day. While exuding contagious motivation, he accidentally dropped his phone. Then, while retrieving it, he spilled his coffee on the floor.
That’s just the way he was, at times, and we even joked about it. I chided him playfully that he was “going to hurt himself one of these days.” He was dead a week later. Again, it was this specific trait of his that left me not overly surprised when I learned the following week that he’d accidently put his head into the rotor.
Why had I not acted earlier on this seemingly small trait that we knew was a weakness? In hindsight, this accident seemed perhaps as much my fault as it was his. We were all in shock, yet none of us were particularly surprised. Why had we not acted? Why had our leadership not acted? Why had our coworkers not acted? How does this happen?
Patterns of Hubris
It gets worse. In the gap between these two tragedies, I attended three additional funerals with the same common thread running through them. One line-of-duty death involved an over-confident officer who thought he was better than everybody else … but yet no one called him on it. The next included another show-off (so to speak) who thought he could get away with recklessness. He was wrong, and so were those of us who knew about his propensity for rashness beforehand but failed to call him out on it. And perhaps worse of all, one was the tragic result of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time … but yet no one cared enough to warn.
Obviously, you can’t fire someone because they tend to be a klutz. You can’t reassign a showboat if that person’s over-confidence doesn’t rise above a certain level. But as a leader, you can certainly take those factors into consideration in how you manage the people who work for you.
The details of each of these tragedies are perhaps not as important as the key takeaways we can apply in our commitment to being better public safety managers. What follows are five such lessons that, if applied, can be the difference between life and death.
1. Promote Excellence. What you permit you promote. When we refuse to confront safety and performance shortcomings, we are not only permitting them, but actively promoting them. What we tolerate, we don’t change. If we accept bad traits or circumstances as acceptable, then we are both promoting them and not changing them. In policing, small shortcomings can lead to big misfortunes and cannot be tolerated. Officer safety demands excellence … promote it by not permitting or tolerating anything less.
2. Don’t Just Speak, Speak Up. How we live and act across our teams and boundaries is more important than any equipment, technology, training, policy or experience that we have. We can have the best of all of this, but we also need to talk to each other, have relationships with each other, speak to each other, and speak up to each other when we need to keep each other safe. There can be no hesitation when officer safety is threatened. When we fail to reach across the teams and boundaries, we fail to see other’s needs. Truly reaching out means speaking up and not just speaking.
3. Focus on Team, Versus Focus on Self. As team members, whether you’re a leader or a follower, it is our responsibility to maintain this focus on others and not just ourselves. When we selfishly or arrogantly focus on just ourselves versus our teams, then we have lost our effective leadership or followership and officer safety can be compromised.
4. Recognize Bad Days. In policing, the difference between recognizing a bad day and ignoring a bad day can make the difference between life and death. As much as some of us struggle to admit it, individual bad days are inevitable. We are not robots, and we are not perfect. The critical key in policing is recognizing struggles in ourselves as well as in those around us. Struggles happen, and when they do, the true professional recognizes the risk and takes the proverbial day off. The same consummate professional confronts others and calls attention to their bad days. It’s OK to not be OK … just recognize it and adjust accordingly.
5. Manage Only Up and Out. I am a true believer that every one of us — everyone on the team everyone in the organization — has equal value. I truly believe it. However, some of us and/or our followers are simply improperly assigned or improperly developed. As a result, we do not always see that equal value. It is our job as leaders to push for the proper assignment and proper development. In that regard, we are managing up or managing out … anything in between is not leadership at all.
Learning from Tragedy
How many funerals are enough? How many line-of-duty deaths are too many? One is too many. Perhaps a better question to ask is what are we doing to proactively prevent the next one. Is there anyone in your unit right now who you would not be overly surprised to be involved in an unexpected tragedy? Are you proactively taking steps, or are you managing for the status quo?
We learn from our real-life stories. I learned the hard way. We all have the opportunity to change the stories that are still playing out right in front of us today.