Training showing police ways to reduce the chances of dying in a traffic-related incident included something as simple as buckling up.
For 27-year police veteran Scott Slagle, the message provided during a recent training program in Delmont, Pa., was preaching to the choir.
Washington Township’s police chief said he believes seatbelts twice saved his life, so he requires all on-duty officers in his department to wear the restraints.
“It’s one of my pet peeves, not wearing a seatbelt. I don’t play games with that,” said Slagle, 50.
He and about 70 officers from departments including Greensburg, Westmoreland County parks police, North Huntingdon, Monroeville, Forest Hills, Plum and Ligonier Township took part in the recent training sponsored by PennDOT and the Southwest Regional Traffic Safety Network.
The program is called “Below 100” because it targets reducing the number of line of duty deaths each year to under 100.
“I believe every new officer out in the field should have this training,” Delmont police Chief T.J. Klobucar said during the training session.
According to the National Law Enforcement Lost Officers Memorial Fund, the last time there were fewer than 100 officers in the nation who died in the line of duty was 1944, when there were 91 deaths. The number reached a high of 280 in 1974, the statistics show.
Included on the Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks police fatalities, are Ligonier Township Lt. Eric Eslary, who was killed May 5 when his duty vehicle was struck head-on, allegedly by a drunk driver, and Perryopolis borough Officer Richard Champion, who died Dec., 14, 2014, during a vehicle pursuit and crash.
Between 1980 and 2008, 308 police officers who died in wrecks were not wearing seatbelts, said training instructor Michael J. Flanagan, police commissioner in Wyoming Borough, Luzerne County.
The state vehicle code makes no exceptions allowing first responders to go without a seatbelt, PennDOT spokesman Jay Ofsanik said. It’s up to departments to reinforce the mandate within their own policies.
Klobucar, who requires his force to wear seat belts and vests, also admonishes them about speeding in the small borough.
Klobucar and Slagle both said high-speed chases of suspects simply are not worth the risk. They instruct their officers to avoid chases and instead to get the license plate when they see a speeding motorist.
Slagle said during a recent pursuit of a speeding motorcyclist, school was ending, meaning buses would be on the roads. Officers identified the driver, and he called off the chase.
“I’m very proactive in stopping chases. We got him later,” he said.
Flanagan’s three-hour video presentation focused on five tenets: Wear Your Belt, Wear Your Vest, Watch Your Speed, What’s Important Now? and Complacency Kills.
“Those are the things that are under our control,” Flanagan said.
During the past 10 years, more than 150 officers on average have died each year in the line of duty, statistics show.
The memorial fund’s website lists a 2015 roll call of 124 officer fatalities, with 52 dying in traffic-related incidents. And those deaths sometimes resulted in the deaths of others.
Those attending the training watched dashboard videos of an officer T-boning a car at 126 mph, killing two teenage sisters, and of a rookie cop speeding to assist another officer and striking a light pole.
“It was his second accident that week. Do we think that’s a problem?” Flanagan asked.
One anguished officer fell to his knees after knocking a 10-year-old boy off his bike in Dallas in 2008, killing the child.
“What do you think he’s feeling right now? What would you be feeling?” Flanagan asked.
The screen depicted a web of grief spread among survivors and depicted court cases and funerals.
The effects of high-speed driving can include an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, tunnel vision and diminishing depth perception, Flanagan said.
“Take a breath – take five or six or 10 of them. It will help you slow down and think,” he said.
Michelle Preston, 31, a Latrobe police officer, found the training a good refresher course.
She recalled once responding to a fight involving police at the Fort Ligonier Days festival.
While it was a “high stress” call and she worried about what she might encounter, she intentionally monitored her speed and her surroundings.
“You can’t help if you can’t get there,” Preston said.