First Results From Ongoing Survey Of Officers Who Survive Wounds

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The first small sample of “near-miss” reports about officers who survived potentially fatal injuries has been reviewed by the VALOR Project—with some surprises emerging.

VALOR (Violence Against Law Officer Research) is the umbrella name for a variety of ongoing studies by Dr. Matt Sztajnkrycer, seeking to improve on-scene casualty care for wounded LEOs. Sztajnkrycer is chairman of emergency medicine research for the Mayo Clinic, a SWAT doc and police medical advisor in Minnesota, and a faculty member for the certification course in Force Science Analysis.

Last October, he launched a website (www.valorproject.org) where law enforcement professionals can confidentially report details of street encounters that could have resulted in officer mortalities but did not. By studying injuries that were survived, his intention is to gather important information that will ultimately be helpful in determining the best crisis medical interventions for wounded personnel. [See Force Science News Transmission #161, sent 10/22/10, for full details.]

Recently, Sztajnkrycer reported on the first 37 responses he has received—34 from 17 U.S. states and 3 from 2 Canadian provinces. A “broad spectrum” of federal, state, county, and municipal agencies are represented. There is a relatively even distribution between wounds considered slight, severe, and critical.

“Although we need many more contributions before solid conclusions can be drawn, I wanted at least to start getting information out to people who can use it. The responses already are showing some interesting preliminaries relevant to everyone,” Sztajnkrycer told FSN.

For instance:

  • Nearly 40% of the injury cases involved officers working alone, with no immediate backup available. “This has a major implication for departmental medical training,” Sztajnkrycer says. “Without buddy-aid capability, a wounded officer not only has to manage whatever tactical threat exists but also be able to take care of treating himself until backup or medical professionals arrive.”
  • Injuries most often occurred (10 cases out of the 37) on “suspicious person” calls—more than twice as often as on domestics, which often get featured treatment in news reports. “This may change as we get more data,” Sztajnkrycer explains, “but right now a suspicious-person assignment seems to be a particular red flag.” The second most common circumstance for injury (16%): vehicle stops for traffic violations.
  • Wounding by gunshot was the cause of more than two-thirds of the injuries reported, with only one case of MVA injury reported. This surprises Sztajnkrycer and he suspects “hindsight bias” is involved. “Looking back, officers are probably more likely to remember and report a tactical situation gone bad than a driving mishap which may be dismissed as ‘just one of those things’ without any particular lessons to be learned. Given the rate that officers are killed in MVAs, however, near-miss injuries in that category are undoubtedly important to know more about.”
  • Also surprising—and also possibly influenced by hindsight bias—was the frequency of wounded officers needing to be rescued under conditions of an active continuing threat. “This occurred in one-quarter of the sample—a lot,” Sztajnkrycer says. “If this is truly reflective of field circumstances it shows the importance of knowing how to evaluate the condition of downed officers and to rehearse and perform safe extractions.”
  • The most common medical attention provided in the field by LEOs to themselves or other officers was the control of bleeding. Mostly this was done by bandage and manual pressure. But in 2 cases, tourniquets were used. This is important information, Sztajnkrycer points out, because some question has been raised about the value of tourniquets in treating injured cops, given that wounds fatal to officers tend to be in the chest or head where tourniquets can’t help. The VALOR findings, however, show that some survivable wounds are indeed tourniquet-responsive.
  • Verbal reassurance was offered to injured officers by other LEOs in a majority of cases. Even if no medical aid can be provided, verbal encouragement is “very important psychologically,” Sztajnkrycer says. “There’s a huge amount of comfort in being in the presence of friends telling you everything’s going to be okay. That can be a vital factor in maintaining the will to live.”
  • More injured officers (about 25%) were transported to a medical facility by police car than Sztajnkrycer expected. “Except in cases where there’s concern about moving a patient because of neck injuries, this is probably desirable, given the wait time for ambulance or helicopter response, especially in rural areas,” he says. “Even if you start moving toward a hospital and intercept EMS along the way, you can cut down on wasted time. There is some recently published data from Philadelphia suggesting that police transport of patients with penetrating (stab or gunshot) trauma is safe. But if you’re going to transport people by car, you need to practice. It’s not easy to get a big officer wearing a vest, duty belt, and so on into the back of a squad car with a cage.”

In addition to compiling statistical tallies, Sztajnkrycer will be analyzing narratives that accompanied the submitted cases for additional data, especially information that might be helpful in shaping training recommendations.

A detailed summary of the initial near-miss findings appears on the VALOR Project website and also on a new VALOR Project Facebook page. New reports of injury cases can be submitted at the Project website, and Sztajnkrycer strongly urges that you send him information whenever you have knowledge of officer injuries.

“I’m dedicated to analyzing all the data I can get,” he says. “The more we can learn about what works in the field and what doesn’t, the faster training can be designed and shared to help keep officers alive.”

He intends to continue gathering near-miss reports indefinitely. Please remember to help as you experience or learn about such cases.

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