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Officer Down: Everything Changed in an Instant

On October 1, 1962 President John F. Kennedy signed a proclamation which designated May 15th as Peace Officers Memorial Day, and the week in which that date falls was designated as Police Week. It is expected that between to 25,000 to 40,000 attendees will attend the Washington DC memorial service and other scheduled events this week to honor those officers who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for the safety and protection of our nation and its people.  The event is sponsored by the National Fraternal Order of Police and is implemented by the National FOP Memorial Committee.  Carved on the blue-gray walls of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial are the names of more than 20,000 officers who have been killed in the line of duty throughout US history.  The first known in the line of duty death was of Albany County NY Constable Darius Quimby; his final end of watch was on Monday, January 3, 1791; his cause of death was “gunfire”. New names of fallen officers are added to the monument each spring in conjunction with National Police Week. This year 286 new names have been added; 105 of those names are of the officers who died in 2013; the other 181 names are from officers who had not previously been placed on the wall.   At the current rate at which names are being added, the Memorial walls are expected to be filled by 2050.

There is no bigger crisis in law enforcement than an officer who has been killed in the line of duty.  That crisis repeated itself 105 times in 2013.  And yet, with that knowledge, over 900,000 dedicated US law enforcement officers are unhesitatingly willing to sacrifice their lives for the public safety and protection of others.  Each and every in the line of duty death (LODD) impacts every brother and sister of the thin blue line.  

A review of the 105 LODD in 2013:

  • 101 male offices and 4 female officers lost their lives
  • The three main causes of death were:
  1. Vehicle related (auto accidents, motorcycle accidents, vehicle pursuits, vehicular assault, and struck by vehicle, boating & aircraft accidents) – 48 lives
  2. Gunfire - 32 lives
  3. Heart attack – 10 lives
  • The average age of the officers was 42 years
  • The average tour of duty was 13 years, 9 months
  • Additionally there were 17 K9  LODD
  • There was a 19% decrease in LODD compared to 2012 (125 deaths)
  • There was a 70% decrease in LODD compared to 2011 (179 deaths)
  • In fact the number of LODD in 2013 were the lowest since 1959 (110 deaths)
  • As of May 9th there have been 38 in the line of duty deaths in 2014 (so far a 7% decrease compared to 2013)

Becoming a LODD Survivor

The effects on the surviving colleagues of a LODD tragedy are complicated and profound.  Not only is a peer/partner/colleague gone, there is genuine feeling that you have lost a family member; a family member who had willingly signed up to potentially lose his or her life in order to protect you and others.  Additionally, there is the feeling of the loss of an indispensible team member.  There is also the persistent sense of a loss of innocence, as the survivors are forced to recognize their own mortality.  Everything had changed in an instant.  The world will never be the same; it has become immediately lonelier and definitely more frightening.  The emotions surrounding this are enormous and frequently overwhelming.  And even worse is that ever nagging image and mantra….Cops aren’t supposed to cry. 

I can tell you as a nurse who has worked in acute settings, with law enforcement, and currently in hospice that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.  Grief is a process that has many components; no two people grieve in the same way, experience the same emotions, intensity of those emotions, or follow the same time table.  Grief is supposed to hurt; the pain helps validate the deceased importance in your life and world in general. Minimizing your feelings hinders, not helps, the grieving process. 

The psychological impact on surviving officers is frequently severe related to the closeness he/she had with the fallen officer as well as the brutality of the crime or the senselessness of an accident.  The process is often prolonged by the frequent re-exposure to the incident by the media and delays in the justice system.

The Most Common Feelings of Grief Include

  • Shock and disbelief are often the initial reactions. Officers may feel a profound numbness and disorientation that feels like they are in a fog.  This trance-like feeling can actually help the officer make it through the motions and emotions as they try to grapple with the enormity of the loss.
  • It is when the fog clears that most individual’s emotions fall into turmoil. You may have vivid flashbacks of the moment you were notified of the death or of the last time you saw you’ve the officer alive. You may also have dreams of the fallen officer or believe that he/she just might “walk through that door again”.  This may be accompanied by other feelings of denial that the officer is actually dead. 
  • Grief may come in spasms initially and is often accompanied by both physical:  uncontrollable crying, panic attacks, restlessness, hypervigilance, an inability to concentrate, insomnia or hypersomnia, nightmares, unexplained fatigue, aches/pain, and nausea.  As the reality of death sinks in deeper, depression is usually not too far behind with feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and increased vulnerability. The world may seem to lose its meaning and previously enjoyable activities may seem like burden; there may a tendency to want to withdraw from others.  Many surviving officers continue to experience a feeling of profound sadness. This depression may lift or it may become chronic. 
  • Invariably surviving officers will also experience a great need to understand why this tragedy happened. In a quest for this understanding, officers may feel compelled to know everything there is to know about what happened, where it happened, and who did it.
  • Anger often accompanies knowledge.  This anger can seem overwhelming, frightening and/or even motivating.  The anger is most frequently directed at the suspect(s) but may also include a myriad of entities.  There is a need to blame someone…anyone: the murderer, society, the agency (specifically command, other responding officers and administration), the criminal justice system, family members, friends, God, and nature/weather/traffic/etc.   There may also be anger directed at the fallen officer for putting himself and possibly other officers in harm’s way. Anger is a natural and healthy reaction to severe loss. This anger will never completely go away; but time and support can help an officer come to grips with a LODD.
  • Anger is invariably fed by survivor guilt.  Every LODD surviving officer lives with “what-ifs”.  "What if I had been there with him?"  This type of guilt is a completely normal reaction.  It is important for surviving officers to remember that no one can predict the future or recreate what might have been. We can’t change the events that took place, and to continue blaming ourselves will only be destructive.
  • The quest for revenge is another common reaction/emotion. For the first time in their lives, many survivors find themselves thinking of ways to kill another human being, the killer. Understandably, this may be a very disturbing emotion. If you are a survivor and have these feelings you may wonder if you are suddenly going crazy.  You are not; in fact you are quite normal.  Studies have shown that practically every survivor of a LODD thinks about, or fantasizes about, revenge.  Just because you have these feelings does not mean that you will act on them.

LODD survivors need to grieve, and they must understand there is no timetable for grieving. They need to do it in their own way and time. They also must be able to reach out for assistance without shame or embarrassment.   Survivors who are suffering unduly need assistance in finding appropriate help.  Grief does get better, but it may never go away.

The news of a law enforcement in the line of duty death spreads rapidly within an agency, the community and nationally.  Officer.com offers email alerts to notify all officers of a tragedy to one of their own.  The thin blue line reacts individually, collectively, and spontaneously.  Officers unite to share their grief; support each other; and become an even stronger, more cohesive group.  As you read this tens of thousands of survivors are gathered at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial to honor the officers who have died in the line of duty.  If you are a survivor, know that you are not alone and that there is a lot of help available.  Start by going to the C.O.P.S (Concerns of Police Survivors) website:  http://www.nationalcops.org/  You can also reach out to others in an Officer.com forum. 

Epilogue

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial features four bronze lions, two male and two female, each watching over a pair of lion cubs.  Below each lion is carved a different quotation:

"It is not how these officers died that made them heroes, it is how they lived." Vivian Eney Cross, Survivor

"In valor there is hope." Tacitus

"The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are as bold as a lion." Proverbs 28:1

"Carved on these walls is the story of America, of a continuing quest to preserve both democracy and decency, and to protect a national treasure that we call the American dream." President George H. W. Bush

 

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