Don’t forget to weigh safety when addressing bottom line

I had a chance to read the article today highlighting Mayor Dietz’s idea to run one Elk River police squad car an extra year. The intent is to determine if running the car an extra year is cost effective, to review maintenance records and repair costs to determine if the plan will assist the city in keeping costs down by potentially keeping squad cars an extra year.

I applaud the mayor’s effort to continue to reduce costs. It has been his primary focus since the day he took office. I must add, though, that directing and guiding a city with your eyes always on the dollar sign is not always the most effective way, nor the safe way-to manage a city.

Just over a year ago, I had the opportunity to attend a national conference in San Diego for law enforcement managers. There I learned that the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the International Law Enforcement Education and Trainers Association and a large number of professional law enforcement associations have endorsed the “Below 100 Initiative.” This initiative was designed just over a year ago to reduce the number of officer deaths in the United States to drop below 100, a number that has not been seen since 1944. On average, over 150 officers lose their lives in the line of duty each year. The majority of these lives lost are in motor vehicle accidents, most of them being single car collisions.

The initiative focuses on several core tenets — officers wearing their vests, officers wearing their seat belts, receiving better survival training and finally, vehicle safety.

The vehicle safety portion is currently being evaluated by the United States Department of Justice, which is the primary agency that tests and evaluates the tools officers use to perform their duties. This includes firearms, protective body armor, pepper sprays, ammunition and now for the first time, the vehicles they drive. One of the first tasks for DOJ is to examine the police vehicle interiors to determine what objects mounted there are potentially contributing to officer deaths during vehicular accidents. (Mobile computers, radios and other equipment can become missiles or impact devices during motor vehicle collisions.)

Part of this initial review has brought about some potential contributing factors. One of them is that departments are possibly keeping their squad cars too long — using them past the 100,000-mile mark. Many of the squad cars involved in fatal crashes had over 100,000 miles. These cars may be mechanically strong, their engines running well, brakes adjusted, and exteriors intact and polished.

The hidden factors, those that can’t be tested, are suspected of being at least contributing factors to the accidents where officers are killed. Frames that have been weakened and stretched over the past years of intense police service — where a great deal of high speed cornering involved. Metal fatigue that can’t be found or observed. Suspension systems that are worn, reducing the way in which the vehicle maneuvers. Last — officers failing to realize that the older car they drive today handles completely different than the newer car they drove yesterday.

There is no doubt that the city of Elk River has an exceptional vehicle maintenance staff. Over the years, they kept our police fleet in excellent condition. But they are mechanics and service personnel who can’t fix what does not appear to be broken, and they have neither the experience or the tools to evaluate the frame fatigue and weakened suspension functionality. I know as well that Chief Rolfe would never put any of his staff in an unsafe vehicle, which is why he has always supported not keeping these vehicles the extra year.

I ask, Mayor Dietz, that you consider the safety and the lives of those who serve your community as police officers, and not risk their welfare during their daily duties. I applaud your tenacious and focused review of the budget, but implore you to look at safety, not repair bills, as you try to save another dollar. The lives of your staff are dependent on mayoral guidance that is focused on more than just the bottom line.  — Jeff Beahen, Elk River (Editor’s note: Beahen is the retired chief of Elk River Police.)