The preliminary 2008 midterm report on U.S. law enforcement deaths by the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund shows a significant, 41 percent, reduction compared to the same period in 2007—the lowest total in more than four decades. On the surface, this is very good news for us—the fewer police deaths the better. But does this mean that police work is 40 percent safer in 2008?
What needs to be considered is that we experienced an unusually high number of officer deaths in 2007. The first six months of 2007 had the highest number of officer fatalities since 1978. Comparing such extreme statistical highs and lows within a single year does not reveal the causes for the dramatic decline. These statistics also cannot quantify the number of close call and near miss incidents that occur almost daily in the U.S.
SWAT is not immune from being included among these tragic deaths, as evidenced by the first death of an LAPD SWAT officer during an operation. During a hostage rescue attempt in February 2008, Randall Simmons was killed and his partner, James Veenstra, was critically wounded. The sobering reality for SWAT is if it could happen to LAPD, it could happen to any SWAT team.
Since the release of the 2008 midterm report, more names have been added to the roster of fallen officers. The most recent occurred early Sunday morning, during a traffic stop by Twinsburg (Ohio) officer Joshua Miktarian. Backup officers found the 11-year veteran K-9 officer lying next to his cruiser, gun still holstered, four gunshot wounds to the head. Rushed to a trauma center, Miktarian succumbed to his wounds, leaving behind his wife (also a police officer) and three-month-old daughter. In the ensuing police/SWAT manhunt, the suspect was arrested with the officer’s handcuff still on one wrist.
Simultaneous to the Twinsburg incident, a suburban Cleveland SWAT team TASERed a barricaded suspect who failed to respond to negotiation attempts. However, he pulled out one of the probes, then pointed a rifle at SWAT. A SWAT cover officer shot and killed the suspect.
Earlier in the week, Northeast Ohio experienced two other deadly officer-involved incidents. In Canton, a 76-year-old retired sergeant Earl Schoeneman was found murdered inside his home. An ex-con neighbor was arrested for the brutal murder. Adding to the tragedy, Sgt. Schoeneman was the CPD’s 1975 Officer of the Year, who survived being shot five times during a 1967 robbery.
Last Thursday, 2,500 miles away in the rugged, steep, wooded Saratoga Hills of Santa Clara County (Calif.) another deadly law enforcement incident was playing out. It began as a raid by 20 LE officers on a marijuana farm. In recent years, sophisticated covert, organized marijuana operations in remote California parkland have been linked to Mexican drug cartels. These operations are patrolled by heavily armed guards and have engaged in several shootouts with police.
In the Saratoga raid, police were confronted by three armed subjects, with police shooting and killing one and the other two fleeing, setting off a massive manhunt by 100 officers, helicopters, canine units, and five SWAT teams. The search area was 100 acres of extreme difficult, steep terrain and heat. The remaining two suspects escaped capture. Recovered in the raid were more than 10,000 marijuana plants.
In yet another police shooting in Cleveland last week, off-duty officer Jim Simone went to a bank to cash his paycheck, only to learn that moments before the bank had been robbed. Simone told employees to call 911 and went in foot pursuit after the suspect. Incredibly, a Good Samaritan who saw the fleeing robber invited Simone into her car and the pursuit continued.
Two blocks away, Simone caught up with the 35-year-old robber in his getaway SUV, which he was “test driving” from a car dealership. Simone ordered, “Freeze, police!” The suspect made a sudden lunge inside the SUV. Fearing the suspect was going for a weapon, Simone fired one round, killing him.
The preceding incidents represent a mere fraction of the daily confrontations that occur throughout America each week. As such, it certainly doesn’t seem that 2008 is 40 percent safer for police than 2007. Indeed, they underscore the point that any officer’s murder is one too many. We can hope the final six months of 2008 will be even safer. But more than just hoping for it, we can practice good officer safety tactics and work for it.