The Deadliest Job in Policing

Recently, I had the experience of preparing for an in-service class for an agency in South Florida. The subject matter was teaching them the tactical and practical implications of moving from handwritten traffic tickets to using of handheld computers (a/k/a ticket writers). The students were all seasoned cops in the traffic unit.

I am not going to name the department because it could be any one of many agencies across the country. Putting the finger on their officers is also inconsequential. I've been witness to similar attitudes and behaviors in dozens of departments. These guys could have come from anywhere. So, as cops, they are not unique. They are like most of the rest of us.

To be fair, these cops are special to me. They are my friends. I know them now. I have a personal stake in seeing them survive and succeed. They were good students: they showed up on time, they were sober and they stayed awake for most of the class. What more could an instructor ask?

So, What's Up?

The material that I want to cover could easily start looking like a course in statistics that is written by a mathemagician. I will do my best to avoid that outcome.

Policing is a craft that is passed from one generation to the next. No matter how many hundreds of hours recruits sit on their collective butts in a classroom at a community college or academy, the REAL learning happens when a veteran officers shows the rookie how it gets done in real life. That's how I learned most everything that I value today.

There are widely-held perceptions in coppery about where the risks are - and where they aren't. Those perceptions are treated as reality. Training has been built around them. Equally important, we cops have internalized them so that they are ingrained in our behaviors.

The facts, numbers and statistics of today indicate that our perceptions don't match what has become reality. The mismatch is stealing the lives of good cops - needlessly.

What Are We Thinking?

Like most cops, I have thought about the possibility of being killed in the line of duty. What picture comes to mind?

I imagine being hit by a round in a hail of bullets exchanged with bad guys out on the street somewhere. I'd be protecting someone. I'd be fighting the good fight. I would give my life to save the life of a brother officer or an innocent citizen.

Who can forget the bank robbery in North Hollywood in 1997?

No one will ever forget Columbine High School.

More recently, there was the active shooter at the Westroads Mall in Omaha on December 5, 2007. One of my closest friends was the first sergeant to arrive on scene.

2009 gave witness to the horrible killings of four cops on a single incident in Oakland, CA.

Just weeks later, three officers made the ultimate sacrifice in Pittsburgh, PA.

These were widely seen and known by nearly everyone. Each was a classic situation where there was a Blaze of Glory.

That's what we cops generally think about when we consider the risks of our work. It's the mental image that conjures in our minds when we consider the possibility of our own End of Watch. It is, by definition, a heroic scenario.

Training Supports That Picture

We can examine training both at the academy level and ongoing in-service programs. Great amounts of time are spent teaching tactics, i.e. tactical entry, weapon retention, interview stance, physical control / fighting, and the value of using the 1.5 interview position. We stand to the side of a door when knocking. The list goes on.

I am a very strong proponent of training hard and using what I've learned on the street. When on patrol, I'm all business. Talk nice, think mean, are words learned early that have stuck with me. When in contact with a subject, always be thinking about how you can defeat him, was a shocking notion at first, but has proven valuable time and time again.

We are trained to face adversaries who have handguns, shotguns, high-powered rifles and edged weapons. The fortunate ones among us have agencies who regularly train shooting skills.

My last agency sent us to the range to qualify twice each year. Once we had qualified, we were done. The bosses considered that training. Hardly.

With regard to guns, there are electronic situational simulators, simunitions, scenario-based training with paint-ball guns or Airsoft equipment. We can practice a whole host of shoot/don't shoot exercises. Heck, for the past couple of years, a vendor has setup such a scenario room for us to use at the FOP tent site during Police Week in D.C.

Then, there is the gear.

Most (but not all) of us wear bullet-resistant body armor. Many hours of study, testing, and large amounts of money have led to new standards for body armor that have recently been put forth by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

We want the best handguns. We're being outgunned on the street, so high-powered rifles are becoming the norm. Some agencies, which lack the money to buy them, have enabled their cops to buy them on their own dime and then be trained and qualified to use them on the street.

What Is Reality?

My town is safe. Our residents support the police. They know that we are doing our jobs and trying to keep them safe. Bad things don't happen here.

That is an attitude that can lead a cop to his own funeral. It's called COMPLACENCY.

In preparing for the recent class, I worked with researchers at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington, D.C. They are the source of the facts and figures used here.

Question: do the names of any of the towns listed below stand out in your memory?

  • Marion, SD - population 825
  • Niceville, FL - population 11,684
  • Headland, AL - population 3,523
  • Centreville, IL - population 5,635
  • Georgetown, MD - population 5,100

Here’s what these tiny towns have in common: each one has experienced the loss of one of their officers in 2009. Each one of the cops was shot to death. There was no national news coverage. There was little attention from the media at any level.

Yet, these losses are very, very real. Each one is a father, mother, brother, sister, son or daughter to a family who is left behind in great pain. Each one represents an agency whose officers have been cut to the quick. Likely, each one died in a place where many thought, it can't happen here.

I ache when I think of the attention given the death of some famous rock and roll star turned criminal while the real heroes among us die and no once notices or seems to care.

Where Are You Most Likely To Die?

Of course, the glib answer is: anywhere.

The statistics show that in 2009, the most deadly place to be a cop is FLORIDA.

Considering the past three years, the state far in the lead is Texas. Coming in nearly tied for second place is California and Florida. Behind them are Louisiana, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Since the first recorded LE death in 1792, the stats pile up this way (top ten shown - contact me for the remainder of the list):

  1. Texas: 1,504
  2. California: 1,453
  3. New York: 1,305
  4. Illinois: 948
  5. Ohio: 743
  6. Florida: 719
  7. Pennsylvania: 704
  8. Missouri: 610
  9. Michigan: 534
  10. Georgia: 526

What Are You Most Likely To Be Doing?

This is where old perceptions get shaken up.

You are 190% more likely to die from an accidental event than you are from being shot. Where do most of these accidental events happen? Answer: in or around your police car. There is almost a 2:1 ratio between accidental deaths and deaths from being shot.

The next statistic surprised even me.

I teach cops how to write tickets using computers. Often, it is a handheld computer. When I first started traveling the country in this work, I was astounded at how many cops were taught to stay outside of their car when actually preparing the ticket form. In a few instances, it was even the subject of their general orders.

Originally, I came from Michigan. It gets cold there. Every cop I knew retired to the inside of their car when it came time to write the ticket. While motormen didn't have a car, they still returned to the vicinity of the motor when it came time to write.

As I encountered this outside the car practice, I asked: why? The answers generally centered on the cop's ability to better get to cover in the event the stop went sideways. I even had a chief tell me that he ordered his guys to be outside the car because they would be less comfortable and therefore finish the stop more quickly. That would allow them to write more tickets. His priorities were obvious.

My gut told me that being outside the car increased the risk of officer injury or death. So again, I turned to the researchers in Washington D.C. for hard numbers.

They examined data from the last 13 years. The identified cops who had been killed while actually writing a ticket/citation. Here are the cold facts:

A cop who is writing a ticket outside his car is 400% more likely to die than a cop who is inside his car.

That isn't a projection or a theory. Those are names on the Wall. They are graves with markers. They are families who struggle without their officers.

If you're a motor officer, I realize that you don't have the choice of being inside a car, but the risk remains just as great.

So, What's The Worst?

Stand outside your car, writing a ticket.

Do it in Texas, California or Florida.

You might want to make sure your life insurance is paid-up before you do.

Think about this: could you imagine your sergeant talking to your wife at the hospital? Think about how he might explain that you had knowingly put yourself at undue risk. Think about your kids. Think about your current work environment and how well you have adapted your safety practices to it.

What Do We Do?

To be blunt, some of this stuff just will not happen. I am going to say it because I want to get you thinking.

For every 1 hour spent on the range, you should spend 2 hours on the driving track.

For every 1 hour spent on defensive tactics, you should spend 2 hours on studying tactics when you are in/around your car.

In-service training should be developed to show you how to safely handle all of the new technology that is being thrust into the patrol car.

EVOC training should be altered. Cops should qualify as drivers on a regular basis - just as they must to shoot their guns. EVOC training must be updated to include the active intrusions in the cockpit by all of the technical gadgetry.

As it relates to the use of technology in the car, departments must take their heads out of the sand. Telling a cop: DO NOT USE IT won't work. It just can't work any longer. It is incumbent upon us to teach cops HOW TO USE IT in the safest manner possible.

Vehicles should be hardened to better withstand impacts and a roll over.

Sensor technology should be installed on vehicles that would tell an officer when someone or something is approaching while their car is stationary. Cars should be built with self-correcting lane tracking systems.

We must examine the fact that there is so much equipment inside today's patrol car that a cop cannot escape. It has become a death trap. The car interior must change in response to the increase in officer deaths.


I do not intend to diminish the value of training cops to handle assaults. That knowledge is vital to survival. Yet, as cops we must acknowledge the possibilities while we adjust to the probabilities.

It is time to take a fresh look at our city, our section and our community. Is your assessment based on current conditions? If not, it is time to reexamine your surroundings.

Has the demographic mix changed? Is your town now being infiltrated by bad guys from neighboring communities that encroach on your borders? Are you consistently applying WHEN/THEN thinking to driving and to traffic stops? That's when you are most at risk. Believe it! Statistics prove it.

Are you using every resource for cover and concealment when dealing with each situation?

I recently ran into an officer who had many years in the business. He had fallen victim (to some extent) to the it can't happen here thinking. His son works in the same agency - with less than a year on. Dad would not be happy if his son began using some of Dad's relaxed tactical approaches to situations. So, I ask: would you be comfortable to see your child use the same tactics that you do?

If the answer to that question is NO, then it's time for an update.

I'm not here to tell you how to be a cop. I believe that you know your situation best. What I do hope is that you'll take a fresh look. Make sure that your practices have kept pace with the times.

It's all about saving just one life and that life may be yours.

Be safe out there. As always, I welcome comments and thoughts.