A Systematic Approach to Law Enforcement Safety

Joseph Finch


The concept of safety in law enforcement is subject to political pressure, poor information, and media and special interest influence. As the work for this thesis began, law enforcement suffered the aftermath of incidents in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; and New York City. Public cries of police militarization exerted pressure on elected officials and agency executives, which led to restrictions on safety equipment available to officers. As the work for this thesis drew to a close, the nation had gone on to suffer the Dallas police massacre, the vehicle ramming in New York City, and the Las Vegas sniper incident, and law enforcement had been criticized for responses to several school shootings. These events and others resulted in immediate purchases for improved law enforcement safety equipment like helmets and vests. The policy of restricting safety equipment for law enforcement ended, and discussions of police militarization began to fall silent.

The first six months of 2018 saw a 24-percent increase in firearms-related officer line-of-duty deaths when compared to the same period in 2017.[1] Over the past ten years, 514 officer line-of-duty deaths have been the result of gunshots, compared to 364 deaths from traffic incidents and 325 from illness.[2] Despite these data and the trend they represent, the law enforcement profession does not have the systematic approach to safety commonly found in other high-risk professions, and as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act).

This thesis examines federal and state law concerning safety in the workplace. Despite a great deal of discussion inside the law enforcement profession on officer safety—along with contributions from academia, elected officials and others—there is no process or system in place today to improve officer safety. Federal law enforcement is covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and many state and local law enforcement agencies are covered by OSHA equivalents at the state level. Despite this, there are no specific standards for law enforcement at the national level, and few at the state level. This leads many people in the field to believe they are exempt from the safety standards that apply to other high-risk professions. This thesis argues, however, that the General Duty Clause in the OSH Act requires law enforcement to follow the standards of OSHA in identifying hazards, mitigating those hazards and continually assessing safety hazards in the agency and profession. These steps are the first in establishing a necessary systematic approach to safety in law enforcement.

This thesis reviews the fire service, and the aviation and medical professions—all high-risk professions that have adopted a systematic approach to safety. These professions have gone beyond the OSHA requirements and have adopted many of Dr. James Reason’s components of a safety system, which result in a culture of safety within an organization and profession. The lessons learned from OSHA requirements and other professions’ practices create a roadmap that, if followed, will allow law enforcement to make strides in improving officer safety.

Law enforcement executives and elected officials can begin taking the steps necessary to create a systematic approach to safety; if they do not take these steps to create a safety culture now, the steps will be imposed on them. Civil attorneys who represent surviving family members of officers killed in the line of duty will soon realize this opportunity. Organizations that represent police officers, such as the Fraternal Order of Police and the Police Benevolent Association, will also begin to argue for improved safety systems.

The roadmap developed in this thesis provides guidance for reducing political resistance and managing cost based on proven mitigation strategies. The roadmap also offers law enforcement the opportunity to improve professionalism by making officers safer on the job. Safer officers can make better decisions, as their actions are based on data and best practices that can be explained to a concerned public. The time to implement the roadmap is now—not when an outside entity dictates it.

[1] “NLEOMF: 24 Percent Increase in Firearms-Related LODDs in 2018,” PoliceOne, July 10, 2018, https://www.policeone.com/officer-shootings/articles/477523006-NLEOMF-24-percent-increase-in-firearms-related-LODDs-in-2018/?NewsletterID=85601&utm_source=iContact&utm_medium=

[2] Joel Shults, “What Mid-year LODD Stats Tell Us about Police Risks in 2018,” PoliceOne, July 18, 2018, https://www.policeone.com/Officer-Safety/articles/477925006-What-mid-year-LODD-stats-tell-us-about-police-risks-in-2018/.

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