A Culture of Safety in the police

The aviation industry has reduced the number of fatalities in plane crashes from ~2400 in 1972 to ~60 in 2019 by treating every “accident” as a possible systemic problem that could be fixed by changes to the system.

Other industries, such as the healthcare industry, foster a Culture of Safety where accidental deaths are investigated and recommendations are issued after every accident.

Could a culture of safety work for the police force to reduce the horrific number of shootings by the police?

It could.

The challenge you face here is that the aviation industry’s crash investigations are handled by the NTSB, a very well funded U.S. federal agency that is independent of airlines and has a well earned reputation for thoroughness and professionalism. Furthermore, while they are independent of airlines, airlines in general are usually inclined to follow NTSB’s advice, because their investigations reveal ways planes can crash and the airlines don’t want planes crashing.

A police department doesn’t care as much about a suspect being shot. It’s not one of THEIR guys and historically the cops are just as well off if the story just goes away. There also isn’t a huge federal body that exists just to investigate deaths in police encounters; you’d have to create one, at great expense.

Absolutely. When a cop pulls his gun – for ANY reason even if he didn’t shoot it – the cop should be taken off duty for immediate review. For an incident where the cop just drew his weapon, that review could be as short as an interview and check of the body cam footage. If the cop fired his weapon – hit or no hit – that should trigger an immediate review by a third party, preferably a federal agency set up for that purpose.

I’ve seen suggestions like this made, and – astoundingly-- one of the biggest objections I have heard is that this would make cops hesitate to draw their weapons. Um… what? Cops should hesitate to draw their weapons because they’re about to potentially end a human life. If that’s not enough food for thought, then they SHOULD slow the fuck down!

This ridiculous idea would mean about half of all police officers would be taken off the street every other month.
There are a lot of situations when it is a justified (and trained) reason for an officer to draw his weapon, even if they don’t fire it or even point it at anyone.

If half of all police officers are drawing their guns every month, there is a serious problem.

There have been recommendations for documentation, but not taking off duty. For example the National Police Federation says:

It’s possible this might be a problem, but not in the way you think.

Why? Is pulling the gun really the best or most effective (and safe for all parties) way to accomplish these tasks?

Did you read my post? If a cop pulls a gun he should have to explain himself to a review board, and shouldn’t be on duty until this is resolved. For just drawing the gun that can be a quick interview with an impartial body.

And if half of cops are pulling their guns on the people they’re meant to serve and protect once a month, then maybe our police departments aren’t sending their best.

Eta: but some, I assume, are good people.

As an aviation professional, I endorse the OP.

Back in the day, a first officer was supposed to sit down, shut up and not touch anything unless specifically allowed by the captain. Airline captains were treated with complete deference, to the point that many accidents and deaths occurred because nobody challenged their actions. My industry has successfully turned this around completely by implementing a safety management system, and use of “crew resource management”.

It’s amazing, really. I’ve flown with older pilots who came up before this and their stories of the utter nonsense that happened back then are astonishing. What’s perhaps more astonishing is that they are, to a man (they were almost all men back then), they are all onboard with the changes and nobody challenges their effect on safety. This has been a success and it is ongoing.

It’s true that the mere existence of the FAA and NTSB are a big part of this. Another big part is an emphasis on information gathering vs. consequences. If I make a mistake in the cockpit I can file a report that describes it, why it happened, what I could have done differently, etc. If it’s accepted, I likely wouldn’t be subject to regulatory consequences. Think about this - if every little mistake resulted in punishment, there would be no incentive for pilots to confess them, and nothing would be learned by examining these events.

It isn’t a get of jail free card. The FAA doesn’t hesitate to come down on pilots for egregious errors, and filing the report is not a guarantee of no action. But there is a clear emphasis on gathering data and learning from the results. And it works.

I won’t pretend to know much at all about policing. But it’s clear to me a change needs to happen. Aviation may be a good template to use as an example of successful change. If anyone is interested I can also talk about how this has been attempted in medicine with less than spectacular results and how that could be done better.

Thats a great attitude and probably one the police apply to learning from heir mistakes – when those mistakes lead to what they consider to be a “bad outcome”, like a cop getting shot.

For the record, a cop being shot or even shot AT is definitely a failure that should be learned from.

But when the police kill an unarmed man, or beat someone, or even if they kill an active shooter – THOSE SHOULD ALL BE TREATED AS FAILURES.

I’m not saying that if the cops kill an active shooter they need to be punished. Maybe that was the best possible outcome under the circumstances. But the police department should work to amend those circumstances. Even with a mass shooter the goal should be an arrest, not a killing, even if only so we can put the murderer on trial and let justice be carried out in a court of law.

Instead police murders and beatings are swept under the rug.

If cops had the same attitude you describe in pilots, things may improve greatly (but as a counterpoint, aren’t most crashes nowadays still caused by failure or craziness on the pilot’s part?)

My company administers a Culture of Safety Survey (COSS) to hospitals and other healthcare organizations. All employees are federally required to take the survey (or one like it) every two years.

A major aim of the survey is to encourage junior workers to challenge their seniors when they are about to make a mistake. Much like the situation of old that you describe where co-pilots were not permitted to challenge the captain, it used to be that nurses were required to show deference to doctors. Giving nurses the authority to challenge doctors has made a dramatic difference in the realm of patient safety.

Likewise in patient safety culture. There is also an emphasis on reporting the problem rather than the person so that the problem can be addressed without casting blame. Individual police officers might even see this as a positive.

I’ll let Llama Llogophile address the factual aspect of your claim but, even if your claim is true, the number of air travel fatalities has dropped from ~2600 to ~60 in 50 years.

If we get similar results in the number of police killings (currently over 1000 per year) perhaps we could allow ourselves to complain that most killings are still caused by failure or craziness on the officer’s part.

Explain to me again why an officer killing an active shooter should be considered a failure. A failure on the part of the officer? A failure as far as society as whole maybe, but the cop? That’s like saying a pilot who successfully lands a plane on fire should be considered a failure. Something failed but not the pilot. (Not to mention the pilot didn’t get onto the plane knowing that it was on fire.)

Here a few examples of when an officer might draw his weapon and I would see no need to take him off the street for any amount of time.

  • searching a house or business for a possible burglar
  • approaching a car where the occupants are possible felony suspects
  • approaching a car where the behavior of the occupants leads the officer to believe
    criminal activity afoot
  • arresting a suspect believed to have committed a violent crime
  • approaching anyone who the officer believes is armed
  • responding to any call for a violent crime
  • engaging in a foot pursuit
  • when the officer believes that display of the weapon will help maintain control of a

There are others but to create a system where cops are literally taken off the street for preparing to protect themselves is a bit much.

P.S. - The goal is not to arrest active shooters but to stop them. If the opportunity presents itself to do so without shooting them, great. But you don’t tell someone who in the act of killing others, “You are under arrest”. As a matter of fact, you don’t tell them anything.

I’m fairly sure that if a pilot landed a plane that was on fire, there would be an inquiry.

The inquiry might find that the problem was caused by the pilot and could be addressed through training or it might find that the problem was caused by the system and could be addressed. It might find that, actually, there was no problem and the pilot reacted correctly.

If you read the previous handful of posts, you’ll see that a component of a culture of safety is separating the idea of blame from the idea that there is a problem that needs to be resolved.

I think such a culture could reduce the number of police killings. Do you disagree?

Any time you have an active shooter at all is a failure. It wasn’t necessarily a failure of the cop who shot him, but it was definitely a failure. And so you want to figure out the nature of the failure so you can prevent it from happening again.

We already have to document anytime we draw any weapon regardless if it is a handgun, long gun, taser, OC, or baton.

By your standard when I am approaching a vehicle with tinted windows with my sidearm drawn but down along the back of my strong side leg (this is a trained and permissible maneuver) and never aim it at anyone, after the stop you would have me yanked off the road.

While searching for a burglary or robbery suspect in a neighborhood at night of course the 2, 3, or more officers are going to have their weapons drawn while measuring around corners. You’re going to yank every one of them off the street?

During what is considered a high risk traffic stop at least one officer is going to have a weapon drawn. Your idea would have departments depleted before the end of the night shift.

Would your fantasy review board convene at 3am?

I 100% agree; that was a bit of a devil’s advocate thought. You are right, when we have low double digit/single digit shootings in a year, we can recognize that while tragic we can’t hope for perfection from our officers. But for now that excuse just doesn’t cut it.

The problem with this approach is that it only addresses systemic problems. I believe most of the problems in policing are not systemic, but rather cultural and structural.

One cultural issue is the militarization of the police force. It’s unsurprising, considering that many police recruits come from the military, where “safety” means “force protection”. I think we should categorically prohibit military veterans from serving in police forces if they served in combat arms or military police branches. Yes, I know that reduces the recruiting pool. Yes, I know that cuts off a career path that veterans feel entitled to. Too bad. There needs to be a wall of separation between the military and police. And for the love of God, get rid of all the battlefield military equipment that local police departments are armed with.

While we’re at it, the annual physical for both police and military should require photographing tattoos and screening them for association with subversive or terrorist organizations (Nazis, white power, etc).

With regard to structural issues, contracts with the police union need to be seriously overhauled. They should do nothing more than give police similar protections to plumbing or trucker’s unions (seniority, pay, hours, etc). The police union shouldn’t be able to protect police in cases of on-the-job violence. Police convicted of violent offenses, on or off the job, should lose their jobs and be ineligible for rehire in any police department.

There are probably also some opportunities for systemic review as well, but when the system is already full of bad actors and their enablers, any systemic change will be swamped by cultural and structural inertia.