Thursday, January 08, 2009

A Suggestion for Reducing Life Threatening Risks to Officers

Over the holidays came the good news that the number of police officer deaths in the line of duty declined last year, both in Texas and nationally (though Texas still led all states with 14 deaths). So I was interested to see the Senate Criminal Justice Committee Report's Fifth Interim Charge articulate the problem in more detail. See the report (large pdf)

Nationally, 68% of officers killed on the job die in car accidents; in Texas that number is 65% (15 of 23 officers killed between 2005-2007). Another 2 Texas officers (8.6%) during that period were struck by a vehicle while outside their vehicles, two officers died in drowning deaths, and three accidental deaths occurred while training.

These numbers are fairly consistent with national data, the committee found. The part of policing that causes the most on-the-job deaths are high-speed chases and driving to and from each incident - particularly with lights and sirens running when officers can disregard traffic laws, depending on their local policy, and are much more likely to get in a fatal accident.

So perhaps it was that context stirring in my brain that helps explain why I took a decidedly different view than my friend BigJolly at the Lone Star Times of the actions of a woman described by WFAA-TV("Dallas woman fined for misusing panic button," Jan. 6) who's complaining about a $100 fine for using her "panic button" to bring police to her house with lights and sirens running for no good reason just once too often:
Jill Frederick lives alone. She's been burglarized twice. So when a stranger banged on her door at 11 p.m., she hit the panic button on her alarm.

"I thought if I wait one more second, then this guy is coming in. I just did the thing I thought would make them respond fastest," she said.

The panic button triggered what police call a "code 3 call." Officers use their lights and sirens. They got there in six minutes. The man was still there and was drunk so they arrested him.

"To me, that's what a panic button is for," said Frederick.

But a few weeks later, Frederick got a $100 fine for a false alarm.

Jill Frederick said she would do the same thing next time.

Police told her there wasn't really an offense, since the man didn't actually try to break in.

"I think that's not right and I don't think anyone should have to pay a $100 to have the police come out and arrest somebody," said Frederick.

Dallas police say there's a city ordinance that allows them to fine people who use their panic buttons in non-emergency situations.

"We encourage people to use their panic alarm where there really is an emergency when there is an offense going down when someone is kicking in, coming in or trying to get into the house," said Lt. Chris Aulbaugh from Dallas police.
This fine probably isn't coming from out of the blue for Ms. Fredereick; more likely, she's been crying "wolf" before this episode. The Dallas News Crime Blog reported last year that "Currently, a location can have three false alarms during a 12-month-period before the city can impose a fine."

So Ms. Frederick has hit her "panic button" at least three times in the last year if she's starting to receive fines. Each time police officers came with lights and sirens running, putting themselves in the statistically riskiest situation they face on the job, all because the woman is afraid to answer her door. The city should fine her. In fact, they should be reimbursed for the last three incidents, too.

Dallas PD tried to implement "verified response" for commercial alarms awhile back, and while it was operating it reduced this problem dramatically, the Dallas News reported in 2007:

"It's about the utilization of a scarce resource," District 5 council member Vonciel Jones Hill said. "Verified response has worked the way it was intended to work. It does not make sense to continue to send a scarce resource to false alarms when we have higher priorities."

District 14 council member Angela Hunt said: "Our police chief helped us use our scarce resources ... to their highest and best use. Why are we taking them off the street? Why are we taking them out of our neighborhoods to cater to false alarms? We should listen to [Chief Kunkle's] guidance and not be swayed by politics."

Between February 2006 and March 2007, Dallas experienced a 45 percent reduction in burglar alarm calls and redirected $1.56 million in manpower costs previously spent on responding to false alarms to other work, according to the city staff's briefing to the council. It also noted that fees charged for false alarms decreased by $1.19 million.

Business burglaries declined by 0.6 percent during a one-year period that ended Feb. 28, according to the presentation to the council.

Ending alarm company subsidies entirely and requiring verified response for all home alarms would be the best public policy approach, but I doubt there's a chance in the world the Lege would ever do it. As evidenced by Dallas' experiment with commercial alarms, verified response puts more officers on the street and reduces fines for false alarms, but it also forces the alarm company to pay the full freight for the service they provide. Right now it's a heavily subsidized business model.

The Senate Committee's interim charge on officer deaths was particularly light on specific recommendations, but perhaps this Dallas case study offers an example of how they could reduce risks to officers by reducing the number of times officers are needlessly placed in harm's way. Either the state should embrace the City of Dallas' proposal to authorize cities to fine on the first false alarm, or else disallow commercial "panic button" services at residences from bringing "lights and sirens" responses.

Either of those reforms would reduce the number of times officers put themselves and the public at risk by speeding and violating traffic rules, and would also reduce the subsidy non-alarm company clients pay in taxes to cater to people who call the police instead of answering the door when somebody knocks.

RELATED: A commenter brings sad news that "The first Texas peace officer officer death [of 2009] occurred Tuesday in Dallas. DPD Sr. Corporal Norman Smith and other officers were attempting to serve a felony warrant when he was shot." See the Dallas News coverage. My heartfelt condolences go out to Cpl. Smith's family, friends and colleagues.


Don Dickson said...

I am an ardent supporter of more restrictive pursuit policies, and this often chafes my own constituency, many of whom readily admit that one of the things they love about police work is their perceived license to drive fast.

The same judges who will stand the law on its head to find a way to grant an officer qualified or official immunity in a shooting case, will not lift a finger to help the officer who has killed or injured an innocent bystander in a pursuit case.

I keep telling these guys that when a violator runs, that is why God gave them radios, and helicopters.

Tightening up pursuit policies saves innocent lives, and officers' lives too. And ending a pursuit does NOT mean that the violator has necessarily "gotten away." We'll get him some other way.

Don Dickson said...

Incidentally, the other great risk faced by officers doing traffic enforcement, is getting run over. I was the original author of Texas's "Shoulder Responsibility Law," which our Governor saw fit to rename the "Move Over Law" even though it does not necessarily require you to move over.

Whatever it's called, don't forget to slow down OR change lanes when you see an officer on the shoulder of the roadway. I cannot begin to tell you how important this is for officer safety.

Anonymous said...

The first Texas peace officer officer death occurred Tuesday in Dallas. DPD Sr. Corporal Norman Smith and other officers were attempting to serve a felony warrant when he was shot.

From DMN reported Steve Blow, I was also jolted by the bitter irony: One day, the chief of police is at City Hall, making the happy announcement of a major drop in crime. The very next day, he stands outside a hospital emergency room, struggling for words equal to his grief.

My condolences to the family of Cpl. Norman Smith.

Matthew 5:9: Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post Grits.

You would be surprised, well maybe not, at the Texas le agencies who do not have a written policy and procedure on pursuit or emergency driving.

And those agencies continue to receive liability insurance coverage. Amazing.

And as much as I hate to see new laws created and unfunded mandates, the lege may have to get involved in this issue and compel all agencies to have a written policy and state mandated training. Doing nothing will certainly cause us to see one day a uniform pursuit policy in this state which may not be that bad.

As an le officer myself, officers who choose to pursue violators for misdemeanor offenses and non-violent felonies and later are involved in an accident with innocent civilians should not be granted qualified or official immunity.

Dallas PD has a more revised restrictive policy that speaks on this. It may have been met with unfavor, but know doubt is in the best interest of the officers and the public and will help to promote the statutee that says an officer will drive with due regard for the safety of others.