Going home at night

More needs to be done to keep officers safe, especially when it comes to preventing vehicle-related deaths

     About 30 years ago, a law enforcement officer's odds of being killed in the line of duty were approximately one in 2,400, says Craig Floyd, chairman and CEO of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF). Today there are more officers and the odds are actually less: about one in 5,500,

     But 2007 was not a good year. The names of 181 officers killed that year were added in 2008 to the walls of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. This figure reflected a nearly 20 percent increase over the number of officers killed in 2006, and the year marked one of the deadliest for U.S. law enforcement in nearly two decades.

     Even so, Floyd says to keep perspective and understand that while 2007 was not good and 164 officers still die each year on average, the odds of being killed in the line of duty have improved over the last 30 years. NLEOMF statistics for 2008, current as of December 10, seem to support this.

     NLEOMF reports preliminary statistics showing 140 officers died between January 1 and December 10, 2008. That number is 18 percent lower than 2007 and represents one of the lowest levels in the last decade.

     Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) president Jennifer Thacker finds the decrease encouraging. However, she cautions that at any time the number of officer deaths can soar again.

     While 2007 could have been an aberration, Floyd says new technologies, along with new policies and training, are needed to prevent more law enforcement deaths, especially vehicle-related fatalities, which held its rank in 2008 as the primary cause of line-of-duty deaths.

Stopping bullets and more

     During the 1970s, the deadliest decade in law enforcement history, there were 228 deaths per year on average. How did that number drop?

     "From a technology point of view, you have to start and in many ways end the discussion with bullet-resistant vests," Floyd says.

     Officers began wearing vests in the mid-1970s and wear rates have steadily increased over the years. The International Association of Chiefs of Police/Dupont Kevlar Survivors Club reports more than 3,000 officers have been saved in both ballistic and non-ballistic incidents because they were wearing bullet-resistant vests. "As a result, there's been a corresponding decline in the number of officers killed in the line of duty," Floyd says.

     Unfortunately, many law enforcement agencies do not make vest wear mandatory. Floyd says they should. Ed Nowicki, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), agrees. On an 80-degree day with high humidity, a vest is uncomfortable, Nowicki says, but a bullet wound is a lot more uncomfortable and so are glancing knife blows, screwdriver attacks and automobile crash impacts. If an officer doesn't wear a vest, he says disciplinary action should be taken.

More less-lethal options

     Another technological advance that has made great strides in preventing officer deaths is less-lethal weaponry.

     When Capt. Travis Yates, manager of the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Police Department Precision Driving Unit, became an officer 15 years ago, his less-lethal options consisted of a baton and maybe OC spray.

     "We thought we had all the tools we needed," he says. "Then we started seeing additional options such as less-lethal ammunition, PepperBall guns and TASERs (conductive energy devices)."

     These options have given officers an additional margin of safety, and as a result, injuries including fatal ones have gone down dramatically for both officers and suspects, Floyd says.

Training to reduce traffic fatalities

     Traffic-related incidents have killed more officers than gunfire during the past decade. In the past 30 years, the number of officers killed in vehicle crashes has risen approximately 30 percent, while firearms deaths have declined by 54 percent. In 2008, nearly 50 percent of officer deaths were vehicle-related.

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