LOS ANGELES – If you’ve ever been pulled over by a police officer for not wearing a seat belt, there’s a decent chance the officer wasn’t buckled up either.
While 86 percent of Americans now wear seat belts, an upcoming study that will be published by California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training estimates that roughly half of law enforcement officers don’t wear them.
With traffic-related fatalities the leading cause of death of officers on duty, departments nationwide are buckling down to get officers to buckle up.
“Something that can save a person’s life should be on a high priority of being enforced,” said Richard Ashton, a former police chief who has studied officer safety for more than a decade with the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The Los Angeles Police Department has a new seat-belt education effort after Inspector General Alex Bustamante found that up to 37 percent of officers involved in accidents in 2012 weren’t wearing seat belts.
State laws mandating seat belt use often exclude police, but the LAPD and most other departments require them in all but certain circumstances.
The costs of not doing so are clear.
In 14 of the last 15 years, it wasn’t a shooting, but a traffic incident that was the leading cause of officer deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of the 733 law enforcement officers killed in a vehicle accident from 1980 through 2008, 42 percent weren’t wearing seat belts.
“This is such low-hanging fruit. This fruit is on the ground almost,” said Steve Soboroff, president of the Police Commission at a recent meeting of the civilian oversight board.
New recruits grew up wearing seat belts, but often don’t on the force because senior officers don’t use them. Some cut old ones off cars and buckle them in to disable the alarm, belt them out of the way, or cut them out entirely.
Part of the problem is blamed on what experts call the myth of a “ninja assassin,” an assailant whose ambush attack would leave officers vulnerable because their seat belts would interfere with their ability to get their gun.
“No one can tell you an actual story about it [and] I haven’t been able to document it at all,” Ashton said.
LAPD is using the 25th anniversary of a tragedy to highlight the problem. On Dec. 12, 1988, three officers died after being thrown from the two LAPD cruisers they were in that collided at a Skid Row intersection. One officer left behind a pregnant fiancée; another left a pregnant widow.
The sole survivor, Venson Drake, a 28-year-old probationary officer on his second day in the field, was wearing a seat belt.
Drake, who just retired at 53, said rookie officers often face pressure to conform and copy their training officer. Bustamante found commanders rarely disciplined officers for not wearing seat belts.
“I also blame that on the department,” Drake said. “They say they emphasize seat belts but they really don’t. If they start hitting us in our pocket books or we start taking suspension days for it, officers are going to buckle up.”
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said he prefers educating rather than punishing officers who aren’t wearing seat belts because usually it’s a well-intentioned effort to more speedily help the public.
To that end, the department has created a training video for the anniversary of the collision — the worst in its history — to educate officers.
“They’re not listening to the training, and they’re still driving out there like they’re invincible,” said Capt. Ann Young, who heads the LAPD’s Central Traffic Division and worked on the video. “If you stop and think for a minute, you know, I’ve got a loved one to get home to, they’re depending on me every night.”
And ultimately, if officers don’t buckle up and they’re in a wreck, they are not able to help the public they’re rushing to aid.
The California Highway Patrol implemented a safety program this year and has nearly 100 percent seat belt compliance.
“You have to write reports over and over on fatalities, and not wearing a seat belt is always a factor,” said John Hamm, who heads the union. “I mean, what other education can you have?”