Lexington police, whose officers have been involved in three crashes during the past 13 months in which they weren't wearing seat belts, are re-educating them about the importance of buckling up.
Officers receive the seat-belt refresher during their required annual in-service training, and nearly half of the department has completed it this year, Lt. Doug Pape said.
All police officers in Kentucky are required to complete 40 hours of annual in-service training, which touches on topics as varied as CPR certification and hand-to-hand combat. But after the first crash last year in which an officer was unrestrained, Pape said, it was apparent more training was needed on driving techniques with an emphasis on the importance of seat belts.
"It's something we stress on a regular basis," he said of wearing seat belts. "Our sergeants stress it, our lieutenants stress it, our commanders stress it. It is a topic we talk about all the time."
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There has never been a case of an on-duty Lexington officer dying because he or she failed to buckle up, Pape said. Nationally, though, traffic crashes regularly outpace gunshot wounds as the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths for police officers.
Nearly half of those traffic-related deaths could have been prevented, according to a study released in January by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The study shows that 42 percent of the 733 officers who died in vehicle collisions since 1980 were not wearing seat belts.
That troubling statistic is the reason the Lexington department is re-emphasizing its seat-belt policy.
"It is a safety issue," police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said. "Their safety is the most important thing."
In addition to driver training, Lexington police have taken several other steps to remind officers to buckle up. Safety messages scroll across the screens of their mobile data computers. Stickers have been placed in their cars. Commanding officers bark out reminders at each roll call.
For the most part, that seems to work. Pape said officers are wearing seat belts in about 98 percent of crashes.
Despite the three recent crashes, Pape said, it's not the norm for officers to refuse to wear their seat belts.
"These are the anomaly. We don't see it happening," he said. "That's what's strange to us. We don't see an officer out here riding without a seat belt, but then all of a sudden we come up on a collision where he isn't wearing one."
It's a matter the department says it does not take lightly.
Two officers — Jon C. Tucker and Kevin G. Jones — were reprimanded for not wearing seat belts when they were in crashes in 2010.
Neither officer was declared to be at fault, but both were disciplined for violating a police policy that says officers must buckle up when their cruisers are in motion.
The issue was raised again after officer Anthony J. Guidugli was involved in a fatal collision Aug. 6.
Police have said Guidugli was driving about 40 to 45 mph on Harrodsburg Road when his cruiser smashed into the driver's-side door of a vehicle driven by Travis Sutherland. Police said Sutherland, 21, of Versailles pulled out in front of Guidugli; the officer swerved but could not prevent the collision.
Sutherland was pronounced dead at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center. Sutherland was wearing a seat belt, police said. The cause of death, according to the Fayette County coroner's office, was blunt-force trauma to the chest and abdomen. Guidugli injured his ankle.
Police have said they don't think Guidugli was at fault, but the officer's not wearing his seat belt was "a source of concern."
Guidugli has not been disciplined for the apparent violation of departmental policy.
The collision investigation "has to be finished and closed before internal affairs can even look at it and push that forward," Pape said. That investigation could take weeks or months, he said. Police are waiting for toxicology results.
None of the three officers involved in crashes was ticketed for not wearing a seat belt. Under Kentucky law, car wrecks are considered civil matters, meaning police can't write tickets for crashes they didn't see.
"We are handling our people just like we handle any citizen in Lexington," Pape said.
Although officers in these situations might not be ticketed, Pape says a disciplinary report has biting consequences. The report is placed permanently in the officer's personnel file and is taken into consideration when the officer applies for promotions or other jobs.
But a retired officer says the long-range consequences might be far from the minds of patrol officers, who must respond to emergency calls quickly.
In a job in which seconds can mean the difference between life and death, a few seconds can be saved by leaving the seat belt off.
Tommy Puckett, who retired after 35 years on the force, never condoned an officer's refusal to buckle up. He said he always wore his seat belt even though it slowed him down "many, many times over the years when I needed to hit the ground running."
Puckett recalled several instances when the seat belt got caught on one of the dozen or so pouches hanging from his utility belt, ripping off his ammo pouch and radio holster or tearing the badge off his uniform.
On one occasion, the seat belt looped around his left arm, pulling him backward as he dashed from the cruiser.
"It definitely slowed me down," he said. "But is that a good reason" not to wear a seat belt? "Nah. I wore mine."
It's also easy to forget to buckle up when officers have so much else to do: use the radio, keep an eye out for suspects, watch the mobile data computer, fill out reports and field cellphone calls, he said.
Puckett described it as a "hurry, hurry, hurry mind-set."
"You've got a lot more going on than most drivers, and sometimes you just forget," he said. "The brain can only handle so much."
Roberts agreed that officers are busier than most drivers, but she said forgetfulness was no excuse not to buckle up.
"That's one of the things we always stress to our folks is: You're held to a higher standard," she said. "People expect them to be perfect and never make a mistake, and be driving the speed limit and catch the criminal. There is never an exception for an imperfection."