2009: A tale of two trends in officer safety

Editor's Note: Throughout December, we'll be featuring commentary and analysis that looks back at the past year and the past decade, or looks ahead to what's on the horizon for law enforcement. We've already presented columns from Larry Jetmore, Terry Dwyer, Brian Willis, Dan MarcouDick Fairburn, Ken Wallentine, and Eddie Reyes — if you've missed those, be sure to check them out. Watch out for more from some of our top columnists in coming days.

By Craig W. Floyd

Looking back on law enforcement officer safety during 2009 reveals a real tale of two trends — one encouraging, the other quite disturbing.

First, the encouraging news: For the second year in a row, the number of officers killed in the line of duty is down, according to preliminary data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. In fact, 2009 may see the fewest line-of-duty deaths since 1959. The 2009 figure is even more remarkable when you consider that there are twice as many officers serving today at the local, state, and federal levels than there were 50 years ago. On a per-capita basis, our law enforcement officers are safer than they have been in decades.

This year’s reduction in officer fatalities has been driven largely by a dramatic drop in traffic-related deaths — automobile and motorcycle accidents, as well as officers struck and killed while outside their vehicles. After reaching a record high of 83 in 2007, traffic-related fatalities have fallen each of the last two years. Preliminary NLEOMF data indicate that traffic deaths are down more than 20 percent this year — the result of increased awareness of the dangers officers face on our roadways and a renewed focus on making officers safer through enhanced training, policies and legislation. In 2009, for the 12th year in a row, traffic-related incidents will once again claim more officers’ lives than any other single cause of death, but these fatalities now appear to be trending in the right direction.

The encouraging news on traffic-related deaths is mitigated, however, by a disturbing increase in the number of officers who have been shot and killed in the line of duty. Firearms-related fatalities are up approximately 25 percent this year, with many of the deaths occurring in five multiple-fatality shooting incidents that have shaken the law enforcement profession.

In March, four officers with the Oakland (Calif.) Police Department were killed by a single gunman following a traffic stop and subsequent barricade situation. Two weeks later, three Pittsburgh (Pa.) Police officers were ambushed by a heavily armed gunman wearing a bullet-resistant vest as the officers responded to a domestic disturbance call. Three weeks after that incident, two deputies with the Okaloosa County (FL) Sheriff’s Department were gunned while trying to arrest a domestic violence suspect.

In July, two Seminole County (Okla.) Sheriff’s deputies were shot and killed while attempting to serve an arrest warrant. And on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, four officers with the Lakewood (Wash.) Police Department who were in a local coffee shop planning their shift were executed by a lone gunman who walked in and opened fire on the officers. These five incidents have accounted for nearly one-third of all firearms-related deaths this year.

As disturbing as this year’s increase in firearms-related fatalities has been, it is important to put the number in some perspective. In 2008, firearms-related deaths, at 39, were the lowest in more than five decades, so it might not be surprising that the number might rise some this year. But the magnitude of the increase and the sheer brutality of many of this year’s slayings have shocked the profession and the community, and raised new concerns about the dangers officers face from heavily armed offenders.

The NLEOMF tracks these statistical trends so that law enforcement executives and officers, as well as trainers, policymakers and the public can better understand officer safety issues and better address the dangers that confront these brave men and women. But while the statistical data are important, we must never lose sight of the human tragedy behind the numbers — the family members who have lost a loved one, the officers who have lost a partner, and the communities that have lost a protector.

These survivors will always be in our thoughts and prayers, and our fallen heroes will always be remembered at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.

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