Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.
Author: Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

Would a 24 percent increase in murders make the news? Not when the victims are police officers.

The 2018 LODD numbers for the first half of the year from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund show a 24 percent increase in murders of police officers over the first half of 2017, with 10 percent of the 31 firearms-related deaths coming in the form of ambush.

Despite millions of police-citizen contacts every day, violent encounters are a small percentage of those interactions, and fatalities are statistically exceptionally rare. This makes the significance of line of duty deaths as a predictor of future deaths, or the ability to develop clear cause-effect relationships to help us identify preventive measures, difficult to calculate.

Trends in police officer deaths

A 10-year survey of trends shows that an average of 151 officers died in the line of duty from 2008-2017. The high toll during this span was 185 in 2011, and the lowest year was 2013 with 120. We would expect that yearly totals would remain within 20 percent of that average. If the first six months are any indication of this year’s eventual totals, we are looking at 2018 as one of the third highest gunfire deaths of the decade.

While overall traffic-related deaths are on pace to match last year’s, the number of officers struck while outside their vehicles is also on pace to be among the highest of the decade. The report notes that traffic-related deaths have increased since the 1960s even while overall officer fatalities decreased.

Body armor continues to be a critical component in officer safety. The 10-year trend for officers killed despite wearing ballistics protection has remained fairly steady with a high of 68 percent in 2014 and a low of 55 percent in 2017. The FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) report for the first half of 2018 shows that of those officers shot and killed whose information is known, 17 were shot in the front of the head or neck.

A big number that is often ignored is duty-related deaths from job-related illness. The 10-year death totals show 514 officers shot, 364 killed in traffic and 325 from illness. We still have heroes dying from 9/11, and most officers who died during training died from cardiac arrest.

Knowledge for policy and training

Many important questions remain after the numbers are sorted. Has the proliferation of legal concealed carry impacted officer deaths by firearm? Has “move over” legislation reduced the number of officers killed on the roadside? Have body-worn cameras made officers safer? Does anti-police sentiment or less aggressive enforcement factor into officers’ fatality risks? The death tolls alone do not tell us, but information useful for training and policy can be gleaned from what we know.

Traffic hazards

As every study on officer death and injury has shown, vehicle operation is one of the highest risk activities, not to mention liability and fleet costs. Enculturation of the value of restraint and safety in both pursuits and emergency response – including seat belt use – is an ongoing process.

Trainers and policy makers must also continue to address safety of officers while outside their vehicles. Possible areas of improvement include:

Consistent use of reflective wear; Awareness of light management and the effects of emergency lighting, flares and flashlights on driver behavior around police activity; The importance of vehicle and barrier placement on roadways.

Training in traffic contacts should address not only cover and concealment in preparation for an attack with weapons, but also an awareness of areas of protection from traffic.

Killers’ shooting habits

Police officers’ constant exposure to the doctrine of center mass shooting may be causing an unconscious disregard for the killers’ tendency to shoot police officers in the head. Whether cop killers instinctively shoot for the head, or plan to do so knowing that officers will likely be wearing body armor, the reality that officers die from shots to the head and neck should factor into training.

I suspect that in force on force and role-play training, the killer role is acted out by a police officer or trainer who will be aiming for the officer’s torso by habit. Does this affect how an officer responds to an armed assailant? Ongoing training in avoiding and extraction from ambushes must incorporate team tactics, since many of these kinds of attacks involve more than single officer operations.

Police officer illness

Dying years later from respiratory illness or chemically induced cancer doesn’t figure into our thinking much when it comes to our job-related mortality. Neither does collapsing from a heart attack during an annual physical challenge or high intensity training, yet duty-related illness is in the top three categories of line of duty deaths.

Stress and anxiety management, sleep care, healthy movement, hydration and balanced nutrition must become core values in the survival mindset. Availability of appropriate protective equipment should be the right of every police officer.

Conclusion

Fluctuations in the number of officers killed each year will continue to occur because of the inherent unpredictability of the police officer’s world. Controlling what we can with awareness, training, and the proper equipment and support should be the goal of every police leader and trainer.

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