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What we can learn from police officer deaths in 2018

Criminal action, accidents and heart attacks continue to lead the list this year


An police officer lowers his head as he waits for the procession for Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus at the Calvary Community Church Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in Westlake Village, Calif.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, Pool

Line of duty death (LODD) numbers for 2018 are a mix of (relatively) good news and bad news. The bad news is that the profiles are remarkably similar to 2017. The good news is that they’re a lot better than 2014-2016, inclusive.

As of December 12, 2018, 137 U.S. law enforcement officers lost their lives to some aspect of the job in 2018. This is one shy of the total number of LODDs for 2017, but I am painfully aware that there are not quite three weeks left in the year, and that a cop dies in the line of duty about every 60 hours, on average. Barring a major incident, we will finish the year roughly on par with 2017.

Criminal action

Not quite half (46 percent) of LODDs in 2018 were due to felonious action against law enforcement. This takes into account simple assaults, gunfire, officers struck by vehicles and attacks with edged weapons. All of those categories were roughly similar in number to events in 2017.

The years 2014 through 2016 were especially deadly for law enforcement. 2014 was the year of the officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, an event that got prolonged national attention and sparked considerable civil unrest. LODDs due to criminal action spiked in the ensuing years, rising from 47 in 2013 to 66 in 2014, 58 in 2015, and peaking at 91 in 2016. This trend mercifully declined to 62 last year, and is at 64 in mid-December 2018.

It’s difficult to say if this trend reflects any change in public attitudes toward police, but there is some data showing a more favorable and sympathetic view of law enforcement, even if the trend is only a momentary one. A Gallup Poll conducted annually since 1993 shows that responses of “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police was at 57 percent in 2017 after falling to 52 percent in 2015. This 57 percent is close to the average response to the survey over its history.

Favorable opinions do fall after a high-profile incident where someone is perceived to be victimized by the system. Confidence fell to 53 percent in June 2014 when George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. It went even lower, to 52 percent (a tie for the all-time low) in June 2015, when there were numerous protests of blacks being shot by police.

Active shooters

Another statistic that is difficult to pin down is the number of active shooter incidents. There are multiple databases of these incidents, but most seem to have a political agenda, so the way they classify and count each incident varies.

It’s clear that these are on the rise, and they are nearly always deadly, though far more for the citizenry than for law enforcement. One police death that was initially attributed to an active shooter was Sgt. Ron Helus, of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office. Forensics has revealed that Sgt. Helus actually succumbed from a bullet fired by an officer from another agency, so that death will be moved to the “accidental” column.

Additional causes of fatalities

Criminal action accounts for more officer deaths than any other cause, but only a few other categories routinely go into double digits. As with previous years, vehicle-related deaths account for a third (33 percent) of officer fatalities. Many, if not most, of these are single-vehicle accidents, where the officer was responding to a hot call and lost control of the car, going off the road or into a fixed object. This is another tragic statistic that doesn’t change much from one year to the next.

The next-most-deadly category is heart attack, with 16 deaths in 2018. Heart attacks among cops are often attributed to the aged and/or overweight, but a closer look at the data reveals this is not always the case. Minnesota Corrections Officer Joseph Parise died of a heart attack at age 37, and Costa Mesa (CA) PD Officer Adrian Reyes was 43. Neither appears to be overweight in their portrait photos. Their deaths, and others, underscore that the hazards of a law enforcement career extend beyond threats by criminal elements. A healthy diet, regular exercise, preventive medical checkups and acceptance of the fact that none of us are indestructible could help lower this figure.

The last double-digit fatality category is deaths from 9/11-related illnesses – 14, so far, in 2018. This is one nobody saw coming when it happened, and one we can do very little about.

Below 100

The deadliest categories of officer fatalities are addressed directly by an organization called Below 100. The goal is in the name: get the number of police fatalities each year to fewer than 100. It’s never been done in the years that the FBI has been keeping score. Below 100’s advocacy takes in five points:

  • Wear Your Belt
  • Wear Your Vest
  • Watch Your Speed
  • WIN—What’s Important Now?
  • Remember: Complacency Kills!

These are all tenets drilled into every recruit at the police academy, and yet officers die regularly while ignoring them. Below 100 holds training events around the country, and has training material available for free on its website. It’s a worthwhile visit and a critical goal.

Thanks to the Officer Down Memorial Page and Below 100 for their help in preparing this article. Be safe and be well.

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia and Oregon. He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.