By Andrew Birozy
The other day I was driving my kids to the store and in the lane directly next to me was a marked police car from a local law enforcement agency. My youngest daughter asked me if it was okay for a police officer to be talking on a cell phone while driving. I asked her why. She told me the officer in the car next to us was talking on his phone while driving. I did my best to explain that he was probably talking to his dispatcher or supervisor and it would be a quick call. However, for the next three minutes, we traveled in the same path as the police car. "Daddy, you were wrong," my daughter said. "It wasn't a quick call. He's still on the phone … Oh, and he is also not wearing his seatbelt."
I thought for a few moments how I was going to explain this officer's poor decision-making to my daughter. In the end, I decided just to tell her the truth. I told her as law enforcement professionals, there are times we may be allowed to take a quick phone call while driving or permitted not to wear our seatbelts. However, in this case, he likely should not have been on the phone while driving and he should have been wearing his seatbelt. She's too young to understand policy, the law, tactics and everything else we would try to use as an excuse to rationalize our decisions.
My daughter is hardly the only one to wonder about this. When I'm out with my non-law enforcement friends, I commonly get asked similar questions: "Why can the police break the law and I can't?" "Why do the police feel they are above the law?" I used to try to explain things away by quoting department policy and the law, or even how different tactical situations can alter the way we drive. Now, I just agree with them and say it looks bad.
"But We're the Police!"
When you're driving, have you seen law enforcement professionals committing traffic violations, such as speeding, not wearing seatbelts, not using turn signals, making illegal U-turns, or going through intersections against the red signal? I am guessing everyone reading this will answer in the affirmative. Now, some of those times the officers were responding to important calls for service or rushing to back-up a fellow officer. I also know some of the time they were not going anywhere that important.
"He's not very smart," my partner said. "We are the police; we don't have to sit in traffic. He should get into the HOV lane."
I was having a conversation the other day with a fellow officer while driving in a marked patrol car. We were on the highway in the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane. We passed a patrol car from a different police agency that was stopped in traffic and the officer was the only occupant in the vehicle. "He's not very smart," my partner said. "We are the police; we don't have to sit in traffic. He should get into the HOV lane."
I told him vehicles are not permitted to cross over into the HOV lane at this particular point — not to mention the officer was driving solo. "But we're the police," my partner repeated. I will at least give him credit for being honest.
How many other law enforcement professionals use this same thought process? Yes, it is true, you can likely get away with it. But just because you may get away with it doesn't make it right. I am also guessing your department has a law enforcement vehicle operations policy giving you direction on how you must drive during emergency and routine driving situations.
To keep our communities safe, we issue traffic citations. We pull people over for speeding. We pull people over for not using their turn signals when changing lanes, and we pull people over for making unsafe turns. If we are issuing citations for our community members who are committing these violations, why are we committing the same violations for no reason other than "because we can?" We are professionals and we need to act that way. People are watching us. We should be setting the example of what to do, rather than what not to do.
But if doing what's right isn't motivation enough, consider this: we're doing much more damage to the law enforcement profession by driving in a careless manner and with disregard for the very laws we enforce. We are giving people in the community a good reason not to trust us. We are giving them good reason to think we think we're above the law. We risk losing their respect, and with it our legitimacy. And that can prove deadly. We need the community on our side, not against us.
And if those two reasons still aren't enough, consider the safety repercussions of careless driving. Vehicle collisions account for a large number of peace officer deaths in the United States and sadly, this trend has been consistent for decades. Do an internet search and you will find an endless amount of articles related to crashes involving law enforcement vehicles. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, automobile crashes were the second-leading cause of law enforcement deaths across the United States from 2008 to 2017.
Driving is a necessary part of our profession. We must do it carefully, lawfully, respectfully. If you don't do it because it's the right thing to do, or because we need to maintain community trust, do it for your family. They expect you to arrive home every night, so drive like they're watching you—because someone surely is.
Andrew Birozy is a 24-year law enforcement veteran currently serving as a detective sergeant in a police department in Southern California and serves as training developer for Lexipol for the past 10. Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.