Seat belts tangle up KC police officers over safety, security

When a suspected drunken driver ran a stop sign and slammed into the side of a Kansas City patrol car in December, an officer was knocked unconscious.

Video from the patrol car's interior revealed that the officer's head likely knocked against his partner's. Neither wore a seat belt.

The wreck — one of several that recently injured unrestrained officers — has forced Kansas City police commanders to face one of the department's worst-kept secrets: Some officers don't buckle up while on duty.

It's against state law. It's against department policy. Yet some officers simply refuse. They don't want their gun to get tangled up in the seat belt.

Police Chief Jim Corwin doesn't buy that excuse.

"Of all the people in the world, we should be the first ones to understand that seat belts do save lives," he said.

The problem is not unique to Kansas City. A recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that at least 42 percent of police officers killed in vehicle crashes nationally over the past 30 years were not wearing seat belts.

The study also found that fatal traffic crashes were the leading cause of death for officers across the country last year — for the 13th consecutive year.

After three unbuckled Las Vegas police officers died in crashes in 2009, that department

launched a campaign to convince its officers to buckle up.

Kansas City, like many cities, doesn't track officer seatbelt usage. This means commanders have no idea how many of the officers involved in the department's 195 wrecks last year were wearing their seatbelts.

Officers assigned to the traffic division and suburban areas are more likely to wear them than those patrolling the most crime-ridden parts of Kansas City, police officials said.

Some officers only wear seatbelts on a highway or when they're speeding to a call with lights and sirens activated. Most officers, even those who wear seatbelts religiously, unbuckle when they get a block or two away from their call location so they can be ready to react quickly.

Though most officers embrace seatbelts in their personal vehicles, they avoid them at work because they fear the belt will prevent them from getting to their gun or getting out of their car quickly. They also worry that the seatbelt will hold them in an upright position if they need to duck gunfire.

Two officers ambushed in separate situations by gunmen in recent years said they would have been shot to death if they had been wearing their seatbelts. Each dived down inside the patrol car to avoid being hit.

Officer Serge Grinik, who suffered the head injury in December's wreck, always wore his seatbelt on duty until an incident about three months before the wreck, according to his attorney, Mike Yonke.

A man who appeared to have a gun marched up to Grinik's patrol car. Grinik tried to get out of his car, but his gun got tangled in his seatbelt. His partner — who was not wearing a seatbelt — hopped out and subdued the suspect.

"He (Grinik) said he'd rather risk being hurt in a wreck than be executed in his car," Yonke said.

After that, Grinik wore his seatbelt on highways and major thoroughfares, Yonke said, but unbuckled in other areas, including 35th Street and Euclid Avenue, where the suspected drunken driver barreled into his side of the patrol car the afternoon of Dec. 5.

Grinik suffered a fractured pelvis and a broken shoulder and spent four days in a hospital. He is back to work, on limited duty, and fighting for full workers' compensation benefits.

Missouri law allows employers to cut compensation and death benefits for employees who fail to use safety devices. Yonke said police officials cut Grinik's benefits in half and want Grinik to pay for half of his medical costs. But Yonke believes that Grinik's worst injuries, to his pelvis and shoulder, would have occurred — seatbelt or not.

"His injuries were from the side impact," Yonke said.

Deputy Chief Cy Ritter, who commands the Patrol Bureau, remembers that when he was a new patrol officer, no one wore seatbelts. By 1990, the department had instituted a rule requiring officers to buckle up.

Many officers defied the policy, Ritter said. Some went as far as to buy buckles from scrapped vehicles and click them into their patrol cars to shut off the seatbelt alert.

Even today, some officers know ways to disable the seatbelt alarm in their patrol cars, police officials said.

Ritter and Corwin said they can relate to the officers' feelings, but they can't condone the behavior.

Officers who get into a habit of wearing seatbelts can find ways to unbuckle without getting snagged, Corwin said.

"There is no excuse when you're driving two tons of metal down the road that you aren't using your safety device," Corwin said. "My position is that I want every police officer to end their shift safely, not only from bad guys but from car wrecks."