Officers Down: The decade that was 2000 to 2009

Editor’s Note: Throughout December, PoliceOne has presented a series of articles that address everything from changes in police technology in the past decade to the milestone events that shaped the news in 2009. This article is the final in our series, and in many ways was the most challenging to bring together. A significant amount of information was culled from the pages of ODMP, which serves as a stark reminder of the many dangers that police officers face every day, everywhere they are.  In addition, several of our top columnists and experts contributed to this effort, but still it’s incomplete without the thoughts from you, the members of PoliceOne. We urge you to add your own insight in the comments area below. By doing so, you may help a fellow officer win their next deadly encounter or prevent them from making a deadly mistake.

As we close this year and this decade, we naturally take some time to reflect on the past in an effort to prepare for the future. As this column “goes to press,” the Officer Down Memorial Page indicates that 1646 law enforcement officers have perished in the line of duty in the past ten years, an average of nearly 165 per year. I’m not a math guy — I’m a words guy — but even I can do that calculation. I can also calculate that the number is tragically and sickeningly large.

Perhaps on December 23, 2019 we might look back and celebrate how the decade which begins next week “was the time we saw the greatest ten-year drop in police officer deaths in history.”

For now, we take a moment to pause (and pray, if that’s something you do) and remember the men and women who gave it all in service to their communities.

Honor guard fold flags at the 2009 funeral held for the four slain Oakland police officers (AP photo)
Honor guard fold flags at the 2009 funeral held for the four slain Oakland police officers (AP photo)

They will never be forgotten.

• In 2000, there were 163 line of duty deaths — here, we focus on Exposure to Toxins

• In 2001, there were 242 line of duty deaths — here, we focus on Terrorist Attack

• In 2002, there were 159 line of duty deaths — here, we focus on Vehicular Assault

• In 2003, there were 147 line of duty deaths — here, we focus on Automobile Accidents

• In 2004, there were 164 line of duty deaths — here, we focus on Electrocution

• In 2005, there were 164 line of duty deaths — here, we focus on Heart Attack

• In 2006, there were 156 line of duty deaths — here, we focus on Aircraft Accidents

• In 2007, there were 193 line of duty deaths — here, we focus on Drowning

• In 2008, there were 138 line of duty deaths — here, we focus on EOD / Bomb Disposal

• In 2009, there were 120 (as of 12/30) line of duty deaths — here, we focus on Gunfire

For those who live on to fight evil and protect the innocent, we present some thoughts on the ways in which these heroes perished. We look to some specific individuals’ stories not to point them out, but to give a human context for the thinking which follows. We want to talk here not only about the most common causes of death (vehicle incidents and gunfire) but also some of the things people tend to forget about because they’re so much less frequent (aircraft accidents, drowning, explosives devices, and others).

This is by no means an exhaustive, authoritative, or comprehensive list. In fact, it’s woefully incomplete. We urge you to add your own insight in the comments area below. By doing so, you may help a fellow officer win their next deadly encounter or prevent them from making a deadly mistake.

Exposure to Toxins
Sheriff Oren Eugene Smith of the Edwards County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Department succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning on January 19, 2000 — two days after he had suffered exposure to toxins after responding to a medical call where a couple had also been overtaken by carbon monoxide. Smith did nothing “wrong.” He had done nothing else but try to save the lives of two others. His end of watch came at the “hands” of an invisible, silent killer. Officers can encounter any number of hazardous chemicals during a shift, from an overturned truck on the freeway containing a pallet of consumer-packaged ammonia to a clandestine meth lab in a flea-bag motel to an overflying crop duster dropping chemicals on a farm beside a country road.

Police1 Columnist Pat McCarthy says, “My take on this tragic reality is that any officer who encounters a situation where victims are unconscious with no visible wounds, you should immediately retreat and try to get as much ventilation into the apartment, home, or business as quickly and safely as possible. Immediately notify the nearest Haz-Mat team — doesn’t matter whether that’s local, state, or federal. Ask for assistance and how you should proceed until their arrival on the scene. Keep in mind that you can’t assist any victims if you get overcome yourself by some type of toxins. Officer safety should always be a top priority. Terrorism has made this type of a chemical attack a real possibility.”

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Terrorist Attack
Any examination of officer deaths throughout the decade would be totally inadequate if we failed to talk about the 72 law enforcement officers who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Terrorism today is more of threat than it was on that blue September morning. There are many more homegrown jihadists in this country today than there were a decade ago. Many—if not most—have converted to radical Islam while in prison. They exist everywhere and they still want to bring death and destruction to America. There are unknown “lone wolf” types out there. There are organized, highly sophisticated “cells” of foreign-born holy warriors waiting for their “go” signal. To be successful they have to “win” just once. Law enforcement doesn’t have that luxury.

Police1 Counterterrorism Contributor Fred Burton says, “Having lived in both worlds, both as a uniformed police officer and also a counterterrorism agent, I understand how these are complicated issues. There are a significant number of factors that come into play, but one of the things is that there really isn’t a smooth way to alert your average cop on the beat to a terrorist suspect that could be residing in their beat. And what I mean by that is this: You could have, and certainly do have, domestic terrorism suspects that are under investigation by the FBI, primarily a JTTF, that the information of that person and their residence and or the vehicle they’re driving would not be necessarily made available to your average patrol officer. I can certainly understand the reasons why, having dealt with extremely highly classified information, compartmented operations, corruption issues, security clearance issues, and the list goes on. Having said that, there’s an officer safety issue that most certainly takes precedence over the argument for not disclosing that data to that police officer.”

“Patrol officers are in a good position to impact on the war on terror, says Police1 Columnist Dan Marcou “By using the proactive criminal interdiction techniques, you put yourself in a position to contact potential terrorists as they move about the country. You may come face to face with one this country’s enemies in a traffic stop, or a Terry Stop. You may find yourself in the position to save lives by keeping an open mind on every stop or contact.”

“The war against terrorism, because of its tendency to play out in urban, highly populated areas is like no other war that domestic law enforcement has ever faced,” adds Police1 Contributor Roy Bedard. “Often, cops rather than soldiers are the front line against a well-funded and well-organized group of insurgents who use military style tactics and military grade equipment on innocent soft targets. When the battlefield is brought to the inner city, it beckons the profession to rethink its traditional stance on domestic security, and sends a call to the domestic warriors that the time is now for preparing body, mind and spirit for this unfolding threat.”  

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Vehicular Assault
In the late afternoon on July 22, 2002 in Wisconsin, Officer Robert Etter and Officer Stephanie Markins were killed when the driver of a full-size pickup truck deliberately struck their patrol car while it was stopped at a stop sign. ODMP states: “As the suspect approached the patrol car, he accelerated to approximately 70 mph and struck the patrol car on the driver’s side without ever applying his brakes. Officer Etter, sitting in the passenger’s seat, was ejected from the patrol car and Officer Markins was pinned inside. Both officers died at the scene.” The suspect, who was out looking to kill a police officer, was arrested and found guilty in 2003 of first degree intentional homicide and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Police1 Columnist Travis Yates says, “It is a sobering fact that our profession is in constant attack by a real and evil enemy. Those attacks will often come when we least expect them and while we should have an expectation of safety and comfort in a vehicle protected by steel and frame, the last decade has proven that the enemy will target and assault our law officers even while we are behind the wheel of the car. These facts should drive home the importance of driver training in collision avoidance techniques. The enemies abound as we drive and we can never let our guard down. We’re in a war against evil on the road and we must win the battle each and every day we armor up and get behind the wheel of our car. This is the most pressing and difficult of our dangers. While we pass thousands of vehicles each week, it takes just one to radically alter the lives of many. If we are to overcome, training must be the priority rather than waiting for the next tragedy.”

Roy Bedard adds, “We often forget that vehicles and other deadly weapons are only separated by the intent of the operator. Otherwise, they are one and the same. Vehicles present a natural camouflage to those with murderous intent and officers must be mindful that at any moment they could be struck intentionally or accidentally while on duty. For all of the time and effort spent preparing for the gunfight, we lose sight that vehicles remain our most common threat. If given the choice it would perhaps be better to take your chances with a bullet over a three-thousand pound speeding automobile. Stay vigilant!”

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Automobile Accidents
One third of the 147 police officers killed in the line of duty in 2003 died in automobile and motorcycle accidents — 40 cops died in squad cars or other four-wheeled vehicles and eight were killed in motorcycle accidents. As the decade drew to a close it began to appear that an inflection point may have been reached — with the exception of 2007, police officer fatalities behind the wheel have declined in comparison to 2003, but only with 20/20 hindsight ten years will we have any real certainty that this is a trend. None-the-less, with 367 officers dying in automobile accidents and 71 dying in motorcycle accidents in the past ten years, it’s clear that no matter what the trend may be, more must be done to ensure officer safety on the roads.

“Vehicle accidents are the top reason for on duty deaths nearly every year,” says Roy Bedard. “Perhaps it’s the kind of driving that law enforcement officers regularly do, responding quickly, and maneuvering through busy intersections. Maybe it is the sheer number of hours that officers spend behind the wheel that makes it more of a simple numbers game. In either case, getting behind the wheel of a car in uniform is serious business and must be treated seriously.”

“Law enforcement faced a similar battle as we left the 1970’s and more than 150 officers were being violently killed each year,” says Travis Yates. “As a profession we did everything we could to turn this trend around which included policy changes, officer survival training, and technology advances. As we enter 2010, we should look back 30 years, see the success we had and fight like never before to prevent road-related officer deaths. We cannot rest on our laurels. Now is the time to be vigilant and to never accept road related deaths as part of doing business. It is going to take an effort on all fronts — policy, training, technology, and most importantly, culture. Law enforcement must move now and briskly to change a culture that is playing a part in advocating dangerous behavior behind the wheel. We as officers must make correct decisions behind the wheel while managers and union leaders must not rest until their officers are given the best training, technology and policy to make their job behind the wheel as safe as possible. The time for blame is over. This is our profession and it is up to us whether the next decade will be safer behind the wheel than the last.”

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On the morning of September 6, 2004, Newton County (Ind.) Deputy Sheriff Craig Allen Blann was electrocuted when he came into contact with a live power line while investigating an automobile accident. Blann was one of three officers to be electrocuted in the decade — Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Brian Allan Patterson died on February 14, 2003 and New York State Police Trooper Shawn W. Snow died on August 3, 2008.

Police1 Contributor Roy Bedard says, “Most of us have only a theoretical understanding of electricity, having never personally experienced its awesome power. Because of the difficulty in fully understanding its destructive properties, its full nature, and the pathways by which it travels, we are at a disadvantage when in its presence. Total awareness on the scene is the only defense against this silent killer. Like any other investigation, pay attention to all of the clues. Don’t overlook the indicators that suggest the presence of electricity. Being able to interpret the meaning of fallen wires, standing water, low hanging limbs and even gathering clouds will go far in preventing a tragic and untimely death. Stay grounded. Pun intended.”

“Awareness is the key to avoiding being seriously injured or killed by downed power lines,” adds Pat McCarthy. “When responding to traffic accidents that include light or telephone poles, always use extreme caution and never approach any downed power-lines. Always notify the proper authorities immediately for assistance.”

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Heart Attack
Heart attacks (in the exact terminology of the Centers for Disease Control “diseases of heart”) kill more people in the United States than any other medical problem. In 2005, 20 law enforcement officers lost their lives to heart attack— this represents nearly one fifth of the 102 police officers succumbing to heart attack in the past ten years. Among the 20 officers who died of heart attack in 2005 is Officer Eric Jay Van Fossan of the Eagle Pass (Texas) Police Department, who suffered a fatal heart attack immediately after he and other officers struggled with a suspect at the scene of a domestic disturbance. ODMP states that “during the altercation, the officers were forced to use pepper spray on the suspect. After getting the man handcuffed, Officer Van Fossan stepped back and collapsed. Officers at the scene immediately administered CPR. Officer Van Fossan was transported to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead.” Van Fossan was just 38 years old.

Dave Smith, Street Survival Instructor and Police1 Columnist says, “Heart attacks have always haunted law enforcement as we continually go from sitting to full-bore, all-out exertion. Combine that with a bad family medical history, sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, and being a male, and you have a real risk profile. To increase your odds of survival understand that the higher level fitness you have, the better your odds of survival. Both men and women benefit from a fit lifestyle and good diet as heart disease is the number one killer of women, but heart attacks kill men disproportionately and at much younger ages. Regardless of your age, sex, profile, or history there is no excuse for law enforcement professionals not to seek the highest level of fitness they can — it’s just part of officer safety and survival.”

Dan Marcou adds, “For any officer that is in good physical condition who physically trains regularly because you think it is important, hold that thought for the rest of your lives. Exercise may not only positively impact on the length of your life, but also the quality of it. You know it feels great to keep up with a gang banger in a foot pursuit during your career. If you keep training you will discover that it even feels better to keep up with your grandson in a game of one on one basketball in your retirement.”

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Aircraft Accidents
Chief Riley Scott Sumner and Reserve Officer Matthew Tuttle of the Chelsea (Mich.) Police Department died on in a helicopter accident April 13, 2006, while providing aerial support for officers involved in a foot pursuit. The Michigan State Police had stopped a car on the interstate that cuts through that part of the state and the suspect soon fled into a wooded area on the western end of the county. Reserve Officer Matthew Tuttle lived a short distance from the PD and owned his own personal helicopter, a Robinson R22. Chief Sumner gets Tuttle on the phone and the decision was made to see if they could help the State Police. They fly to the area of the traffic stop and hover over the nearby wooded area where an unforeseeable mechanical failure caused the aircraft to lose altitude and crash. Both men died.

Aircraft accidents of any kind are rare, and while comparatively few cops die in such events — 38 cops died this way in the past ten years — each incident seems to make national headlines.

Police1 Aviation Columnist Ken Solosky says, “Law enforcement aircraft accidents are particularly tragic because they almost always involve multiple fatalities. What we have learned about aircraft accidents can directly relate to police work. Rarely is the accident caused by one thing — it’s usually a chain of events that results in an aircraft accident. The same goes for police officer line-of-duty deaths. It usually is a multitude of factors that contribute to the death. If there can be any good news, it is that we can prevent these accidents. The aviation industry has developed a Safety Management System (SMS) approach that involves all aspects of an organization from administration, to operational personnel and support personnel. It requires a complete and total commitment to reduce these tragic deaths. No longer is it acceptable to just have a safety program. Safety Management Systems assigns safety to everyone and is integrated throughout the agency or department. Aviation training, particularly crew resource management can be applied to police work. Crew resource management trains pilots to utilize all resources and consider all information to insure the safe outcome of a flight. The same concepts and objectives can be easily applied to police training. If CRM in police work is as successful as it has been in the aviation industry, we could cut officer line-of-duty deaths by 70 percent. Regardless of occupation, the goal is to return safely to your loved ones every day.”

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Three law enforcement officers — Border Patrol Agent Richard Goldstein, Gallipolis (Ohio) Probation Officer David Poling, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Game Warden Teyran (Ty) Patterson — drowned to death in the span of three short weeks in the Spring of 2007. Having three officers die in such rapid succession, combined with the relative rarity of this cause of death overall, shocked the law enforcement community.

Police1 Columnist and Street Survival Instructor Betsy Brantner Smith says, “As a patrol sergeant in a city with more than a hundred bodies of water, I began my last morning roll call of May 2007 by talking about these three men. Cops are the type of people who run toward bullets, so jumping into a little water in not particularly daunting to any of us, especially if we are doing it for what we believe are the right reasons. Agent Goldstein was trying to rescue his K-9 partner from a canal, Officer Poling was in the middle of a foot pursuit, chasing a guy that had gotten away from a local officer, and Warden Patterson was trying to recover the body of a previous drowning victim. They were doing what crime fighters do, taking care of each other, helping out a fellow cop, making sure a grieving family had a body to bury. And all three gave their lives as part of their efforts. As always, honor these men by remembering how they died and why. Learn from their sacrifice and respect their service; they didn’t go out in a blaze of glory, they died doing what cops do every day — coming to the rescue. It’s what we do.”

“Having worked in a town on the Mississippi,” says Dan Marcou, “I can say if you police by the water you are sooner or later going onto the water and probably into the water. Some officers are hesitant to admit they did not learn to swim as a child. It’s never too late to learn. Basic survival swimming is a must. ”

“My advice is that if you work in an area that has bodies of water,” adds Pat McCarthy, “whether large or small, should consider carrying a life preserver with a long rope attached in the trunk of your patrol vehicle. I would always think twice before jumping into any body of water without back-up and a rope or other rescue equipment attached to your body.”

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EOD / Bomb Disposal
Oregon State Police Senior Trooper Bill Hakim and Captain Tom Tennant of the Woodburn Police Department were killed on December 12, 2008 when a bomb detonated as they examined the device. According to ODMP, a bomb threat had been called into a local bank earlier in the day, but the device was determined not to pose a threat. Later in the day a second bomb threat was made to a neighboring bank. A bank employee discovered a suspicious object in the bushes outside of the bank. At some point after officers responded to the scene, the device was moved inside the bank, where it detonated. It may seem obvious, but sometimes the obvious is overlooked: when encountering a suspicious package during a bomb threat, it’s a good idea to leave it alone until the EOD guys get there.

Police1 EOD Columnist Shawn Hughes says, “Sure, it’s a pain to put the bomb suit on. It takes time to set up the RONS. Yeah, it’s faster to just walk down there and size it up. Problem is, it’s not 1985 anymore. Bad guys are getting more sophisticated and so should you. If you’re a patrol officer, it usually goes like this: the shopkeeper is telling you it’s a hoax, the security guy is naively offering to go get it for you, your supervisor is telling you to lighten up and ‘just get this cleared!’ Don’t let these people box you into a corner. You might be the butt of jokes, but treating suspicious packages as a bomb increases the chance of being alive at the end of the day to laugh at them. Don’t respond to a bomb call already mentally writing the incident report with the mindset, ‘Hey, nothing ever happens here — the most might be a drunk angry at his girlfriend, or some idiot kids.’ That might actually work out 90 percent of the time, but try concentrating on that last ten percent. You owe it to your family. We don’t need to armchair quarterback in order to learn from things that have happened to others. The bad guys are out there, and they are growing in number and boldness. Continue slugging it out in spite of those who would relish seeing you fail!”

“Bombers are just like bad guys who like knives,” adds Dan Marcou. “If you find one be concerned there are more. If you locate an explosive device, suspect there may be a secondary device and more.”

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The number of police officers killed by gunfire increased nearly 25 percent in 2009 when compared to the previous year, which admittedly had the lowest number of firearms fatalities in nearly a half century. According to ODMP, 48 officers have been killed this year (two by accidental gunfire) compared to 41 last year. Too many American police organizations — Oakland (Calif.), Pittsburgh (Pa.), Okaloosa County (Fla.), Seminole County (Okla.), the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Lakewood (Wash.) — lost multiple officers in single violent incidents in 2009. It is totally unacceptable that police officers have become targets of ambush and all-out attack. Improvements in body armor technology can do only so much to prevent officer deaths by gunfire. Increasing the level of training for tactical medicine among officers can also only go so far to prevent bullet wounds from becoming firearms fatalities.  It is time for ordinary citizens — the teachers and the barbers and the plumbers and the writers — to get behind law enforcers as vehemently as they do their favorite celebrities and sports teams. When there’s an officer involved shooting, they need to remember that it’s the warriors who protect the streets who allow them to safely conduct their daily lives.    

“Though the number of guns on the street is steadily increasing, the real threat comes from the number of high caliber criminals that are also on the increase,” says Roy Bedard. “With military veterans returning from service, and the proliferation of violent video games, a new, more intense gun culture has emerged in the US. This time the players are not only well trained in handling firearms, or stalking forest prey, but also many have emerged with the skills and tactics of deploying in populated urban areas and targeting other people. Don’t fall behind in your training and tactical mindset. Seek out more opportunity to increase your skills and knowledge. As times change, you are compelled to change with them.”

Pat McCarthy adds, “First and foremost, remember this: even if you’re shot, don’t ever stop fighting, you owe it to your family to survive the encounter. We’ve heard the statistic that 91 percent of cops will never have to resort to the use of deadly force during their careers. Regardless, all officers must be prepared to use deadly force if necessary. Knowing good patrol tactics such as cover and concealment can greatly increase your chances of survival. Starting a self training regiment on your own by going to the range and firing any weapon that you carry either on or off-duty is important. Shooting is a perishable skill and it’s important that all officers remain proficient with the weapons they carry. You decide when and where your make a traffic stop. Always scan the area you plan to make a stop in, looking for objects that will provide you cover if necessary. If no cover exists follow the vehicle until there is cover available. There is safety in numbers and bad guys are less likely to engage you if you have back-up when you respond to a call or make a traffic stop. Suicide by cop is fairly common today. The bad guy doesn’t have the balls to kill himself, so he will put himself in a position where he forces the police to do it for him.

Dan Marcou concludes, “You do not have to wait for someone to shoot at you to shoot at them. Where there is justification to use deadly force, there is an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm to you. If possible, do not let their bullets leave the barrel. Be decisive. Shoot them back first. There is no second place trophy in a gun fight.”

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