2010 saw an almost 40% increase in the number of law enforcement officer line-of-duty deaths in America. One-hundred-sixty officers died on duty this past year, including 59 from gunfire, reflecting a 20% increase over a similar firearms related figure for 2009. For the almost three-quarters of a million city, county, state and federal law enforcement officers across America, there were far too many occasions to wear the black slash across their badge, indicating one of their own had been lost. And while 2009 saw a 50-year-low in police on-duty deaths, that figure was, unfortunately, 37% higher in 2010.
On December 28, 2010, the Arlington, Texas Chief of Police told the mayor of that city that a police officer had been killed. “Do you know him,” asked the mayor. “It’s not a him, it’s a her” replied the chief. Officer Jillian Michelle Smith, 24, who graduated from the Police Academy in August and finished her field training (riding with an experienced police officer) on December 13, was the first responding officer to a domestic assault call. The armed suspect, who had left the scene, re-entered the apartment and shot and killed Officer Smith as she attempted to protect an 11-year-old child. The shooter, someone with a prior history of assault and crimes against children, then killed two other people at the scene and shot himself to death. He was released from jail in September on a $5,000 bond for assaulting two women. Officer Smith was one of 13 U.S. line-of-duty deaths for law enforcement in the month of December, historically one of the two most dangerous months (January being the other) for those who wear a badge and form “the thin blue line.”
January 1, 2011, saw the first of what, unfortunately, will likely be many more law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty this year. Clark County, Ohio, Sheriff’s Deputy Suzanne Hopper, 40, a 12-year veteran officer responded to a report of gunshots in a trailer park. Believing the shooter had already left the area, Deputy Hopper, who married last year, was attempting to gather physical evidence, in this case photographing a footprint of the believed shooter. That was when the door to a nearby trailer opened and a 57-year-old man poked the barrel of a shotgun out the door and shot and killed the mother of two who was wearing body armor at the time of her death. After wounding another Deputy the shooter was found dead in his trailer, this after a hail of gunfire between the shooter and responding officers. Deputy Hopper's killer was involved in a similar shooting incident with Sheriff's deputies in 2001 but at trial was found not guilty by reason of insanity. It was apparently "insanity" that also killed Deputy Hopper.
As tragic as the losses of Officer Smith and Deputy Hopper are, they are tragedies that were repeated on 59 different occasions in 2010, ten of which were killed in five different multiple-death situations. Two officers were also beaten to death last year, two drowned, three died in either aircraft or boating accidents, and two more from falls. Traffic accidents accounted for the majority of the other law enforcement officer deaths this past year. Arlington, TX Officer Jillian Smith was one of seven female officers killed in 2010, with Smith’s home state of Texas accounting for 18 of these deaths, followed by California with 11 and Illinois with 10. The Chicago PD and the California Highway Patrol lost five officers each last year. Of 2010’s total of 160 officers who died in the line of duty, their average age was 41 with an average of 12 years on the job. Most left behind grieving families.
As a nation, we thought we had recovered from the terrible record loss of 279 law enforcement officers in 1974, with only a few statistical spikes along the way the past 36 years. And while police work can be inherently dangerous, the number of law enforcement officers available to patrol the streets of America has decreased in many areas, this from a high of over 750,000 at one time.
There is a crime committed in the U.S. every two seconds.
Since 1794, almost 19,000 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty, over 100 of which were women.
Approximately 65,000 officers are assaulted every year and 23,000 are injured in the line of duty.
September 11, 2001, was the deadliest day in law enforcement history in the U.S. with 72 officers killed while responding to the attacks on America that day. You would need return to November 24, 1917, when nine Milwaukee police officers were killed in a bomb blast and a Columbus, Ohio police officer was shot and killed to find the second greatest lost of life in one day for law enforcement.
Over the years the New York City Police Department has lost 526 officers in the line of duty, followed by Philadelphia with 229 and Detroit with 207. California has lost 1,176 officers from agencies across that state since such data has been collected.
The oldest officer killed in America was an 80-year-old Pulaski County, Missouri Night Marshal, while seven 19-year-old officers have met similar fates.
About 50% of all law enforcement officers who die in the line of duty are shot to death. The deadliest shooting incident occurred in 1932, when a then suspected cop killer was confronted by nine officers. Seven officers, including the Green County, Missouri Sheriff were all shot to death.
Why Officers Die
As indicated, accidents account for a significant portion of the officers who died in the line of duty, but what about the 50% who were gunned down as they went about their otherwise routine daily tour of duty?
We know that better training and that the use of soft body armor has saved many an officer over the past years. We also know that with the current fiscal challenges faced by most cities, counties and states that the number of law enforcement officers available at any one time to respond to a call has decreased in many jurisdictions. As a young FBI Agent in the 70’s and even the early 80’s, I knew that most of the time all a law enforcement officer needed to do was to announce him/herself, “FBI” or “Police Officer” and the situation would quickly be over, usually without an altercation or gunshots. That has all changed today say law enforcement officials, citing “a more braze, cold-blooded criminal element that does not think twice about firing on officers.”
Some will cite the lack of respect that many have for law enforcement in specific and government in general, while others will point at illegal drug sales and usage, the nation’s unemployment and underemployment rate, the issues concerning illegal immigration, and the potential for violence that officers face every day when responding to domestic situations. In the case of Officer Smith and Deputy Hopper, in a perfect world neither of their killers should have even been on the street.
We are asking officers and agents to do more, include the “war on terrorism” with fewer resources, to include cut backs in training, equipment, and personnel. Across America the black funeral hearses, followed by endless streams of marked police cars will, unfortunately, continue to be part of our culture. And for some, a law enforcement career will continue to be hours and days of routine and boredom followed, at times, by seconds of sheer terror. We can only hope that the brave men and women of our country who wear the uniform and carry the badge and gun continue to answer the call.
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