Could a mid-air collision involving two commercial aircraft provide insights into what really needs to happen to improve the performance of law enforcement officers throughout the country?
I think so. In fact, I’m pretty sure if we fail to embrace a successful model, efforts to reduce difficult choices and bad decisions by police officers in the name of “reform” will accomplish little and the stories of the past few months will be repeated. Those who seek to improve police decision making could learn a great deal from what followed a tragic plane crash 65 years ago.
That crash led to the creation of what became the Federal Aviation Administration as well as the National Transportation Safety Board. Today, we should consider a Federal Law Enforcement Administration and a National Law Enforcement Incident Evaluation Board.
Let’s start with the story taken from an excellent article in Time magazine that appeared last September (to read the article click here).
In the late morning hours of June 30, 1956, a TWA aircraft and a United aircraft collided over the Grand Canyon while flying at 21,000 feet. Seriously damaged, both aircraft crashed with all 128 people aboard the two planes perishing. It took days to recover the remains and produced horrific news stories for weeks.
Shocking as this crash of modern commercial aircraft was at the time, the aviation safety record then was far from what it is today. While we experienced a recent decade free of a single commercial airline crash in the US, in the seven years between 1948 and 1955 there were 30 mid-air collisions involving commercial aircraft.
In many ways, the 1956 collision above the Grand Canyon changed everything. Congress passed legislation in 1957 leading to the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board. Interestingly, Dwight Eisenhower was President. Sam Rayburn was the Speaker of the House of Representatives. And, Lyndon Johnson was the Majority Leader of the US Senate. Working together, these leaders created two new organizations and, with a very committed group of stakeholders, changed the way accidents were tracked, information was shared, pilots were trained, and aircraft manufacturing was conducted.
These agencies had worked for a decade before I began flying aircraft in 1967, and a safety culture was well in place and growing stronger throughout aviation. Central to this culture is the investigation of every accident to determine not only the cause, but to better understand how a similar situation could be prevented. Determined to improve – and needing to improve to attract people to commercial flight – all stakeholders had a role in the process from improving training to making airports and aircraft safer to operate.
No single action by Congress or mandate by leaders in The White House could have made flying safer. It took a strong commitment at the Federal and local levels to change the way the entire air transportation system functioned where safety requirements protected those who chose to fly. Today, the commitment remains and 7,500 commercial aircraft, over 20,000 business aircraft and another 150,000 general aviation aircraft operate at over 5,000 public use airports while maintaining the best safety records in decades.
So, just how should this inform discussions about policing?
Growing up in the Los Angeles area, I saw on every LAPD police car the phrase, “To Protect and Serve.” There is an interesting story about the creation of this motto that dates to a contest held at the Los Angeles Police Academy in 1955. The winning entry became a mantra for the Police Academy and eventually became the motto appearing on the LAPD seal placed on every vehicle.
Protecting the safety and property of the people served by a police department is certainly as worthy as improving safe flight operations. Indeed, failing to make good decisions in either category puts people at serious risk. However, while a national commitment to air safety brought remarkable improvement and a safer air transportation system, it is difficult to find a parallel commitment in law enforcement. In fact, the training and practices in law enforcement rest with nearly 18,000 individual agencies overseeing some 697,000 fulltime law enforcement officers.
Now, we are at a place where nothing less than a full realignment of how we certify, train and share incident information aimed at continuous improvement can build back the respect and trust in law enforcement that communities so desperately need. And, by the way, working to rebuild trust is as critical for the police as for the citizens they are there to protect.
I should say that I come to this conclusion as one who has great respect for law enforcement and many friends who are in or have worked in the law enforcement field. The individuals I’ve come to know while in government or in my community are some of the best people around. But, consider this, if only 1% are not making proper decisions, that amounts to nearly 7,000 people. Imagine, if just 1% of around 50,000 flight operations a day involved an aircraft that failed to land safely. That would amount to a tragic 500 flights day.
Just where do we start?
As we sought the safest air transportation system in the world, so too, we must seek the most effective law enforcement operations in world by meeting the highest standards of protecting and serving the people within every jurisdiction.
Perhaps the best news is that we do not have to research what works because there are outstanding examples across the land. What does need to happen is that those examples must become standards which are clearly defined in ways that allow law enforcement agencies and individual law enforcement officers to be certified as meeting national requirements.
There will always be the need for training locally with sensitivities to local and community situations. However, just as with flight training that occurs in places around the country, a national set of standards should require every law enforcement training program to meet specific requirements. And, as events occur which identify shortcomings, the training requirements must evolve.
What must happen is that the best practices for protecting and serving need to be the norm. This requires thoroughly understanding those best practices and sharing information throughout the law enforcement community about what those practices are, and finally training to achieve those practices.
I also think that just as we certify over 660,000 active pilots in the US, every law enforcement officer should be certified in a national system. We train, test and check the physical and mental condition of aircraft pilots because failure by a pilot puts lives at risk. Should we have less of a requirement for the men and women in law enforcement? Bad judgements put citizens lives at risk and fellow law enforcement officers at risk as well. We should be testing, certifying and tracking these nearly 700,000 individuals for their benefit and for the benefit of the people they serve.
About tracking. This is at the heart of safe aircraft operations. Aircraft operations are continuously tracked. Any anomaly is reported and investigated. This is not to find fault; it is to learn what exactly happened and then correct an issue not just with one aircraft or one pilot but throughout the entire air transportation system. And, if the anomaly involves pilot training, then the entire training community learns about it.
Again, as with safe and effective air transportation, an examination of anomalies in policing is critically important. The need to thoroughly understand how to make better decisions, properly use equipment and to recognize patterns of behavior are all as critical to effective police work as they are to safety in aviation.
Finally, just like the leaders in 1957 who moved so rapidly to put in place an approach to air safety that changed things for the better, we need that leadership now at the federal and local levels to recognize we are putting far too many people at risk today both in and out of uniform unless we commit to approaching the way we police the nation in a whole new manner. And, why not make that a way that has proven to work and delivered to the United States the safest, most efficient, while also the most complex, air transportation system in the world?
Craig Fuller served four years in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for Cabinet Affairs, followed by four years as chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Having been engaged in five presidential campaigns and run public affairs firms and associations in Washington, D.C., he now resides on the Eastern Shore.