How can SWAT units help reduce police deaths? Before we answer this question, let's look at some statistics and trends.
Following a two-year decline, law enforcement fatalities in 2010 spiked to 162, which amounted to an increase of nearly 40 percent over 2009 when 117 officers were killed. Fifty-nine officers were fatally shot in 2010, a 20 percent increase from 49 in 2009, according to the 2010 NLEOMF fatality report.
2011 is proving to be an even deadlier year for police. As of March 28, 53 officers have been killed, which is a 13 percent increase over 2010. Twenty four of those have been killed by gunfire, an alarming 33 percent increase over 2010.
NLEOMF Chairman Craig W. Floyd made this chilling observation — "A more brazen, cold-blooded criminal element is on the prowl in America, and they don't think twice about killing a cop."
For proof, we need look no further than ambush attacks resulting in multiple police fatalities. Of the 59 gunfire fatalities in 2010, 10 of the 12 ambush deaths involved multiple officer casualties in five incidents, according to NLEOMF.
It's disturbingly clear that 2011 has picked up where 2010 left off. So far in 2011, six of the year's 24 ambush shooting deaths occurred in three multiple-officer incidents.
When and where did this recent spike in deadly ambush attacks against police begin? I trace it to March 21, 2009, when four Oakland Police officers were shot and killed by a single gunman. Two were tactical officers.
I believe the Oakland Police tragedy marked the beginning of this deadly wave of ambush attacks against America's police.
As America's law enforcement community was reeling from the Oakland tragedy, less than two weeks later, three Pittsburgh Police officers were shot and killed by a single suspect.
In 2009, "only" 117 police died — 49 officers were killed by gunfire; 15 of those were murdered in five multiple-officer ambushes. The year ended with the senseless slaughter of four Lakewood, Wash., Police officers who were ambushed while sitting inside a coffee shop on a Sunday morning.
Are America's police entering a deadly new era? The spike in duty deaths has occurred despite the many advancements in police training, equipment (particularly protective armor), and emergency medical trauma care. What does appear to be occurring is more and more criminals are showing an increasing willingness to engage police in armed confrontations.
America has seen this type of willingness before. As police deaths in the 1920s-1930s illustrate. Each year from 1921 to 1935, more than 200 officers were killed. This was a gangster era when police were outgunned, had no body armor, and lacked adequate medical attention. This deadly era lasted until police became better armed and targeted the gangsters.
The next deadly police death spike came from 1970 to 1981 when 200 officers were killed every year, except 1977 (189). The deadliest year recorded by NLEOMF is 1974, when 280 officers were slain. The catalyst was the militancy, radicalism, unrest and crime spike during those years. Once again, officers found themselves outgunned, without body armor, and lacking adequate medical care.
Body armor using DuPont's synthetic Kevlar fiber, which was developed by researcher Lester Shubin, was introduced in the mid-1970s. American Body Armor and Second Chance Body Armor were among the first to introduce Kevlar vests for law enforcement in the mid-1970s.
Also, emergency medical care greatly improved, and police began to receive better training and weaponry.
The formation of SWAT was another important development because tactical teams are designed to resolve high-risk incidents through training and tactics with the least number of casualties.
This brings me back to my original question, "Can SWAT help reduce police deaths?"
For that answer, I'd ask SWAT commanders, team leaders, and operators to take a serious look at how, when and where SWAT can help the officers in your agencies. After all, you should know your agency's challenges, dangers, and needs better than anyone. And if you don't know the answer, talk to the officers who work the street, and they'll tell you.
Be proactive. Identify the activities, assignments, locations, and criminals that are threats to your agency's officers. Plug SWAT in wherever you can to help make a difference. Volunteer to assist, back up, and train the officers in your agency. There's no more reassuring feeling for police than knowing SWAT is there to help when needed.
Make sure your training, tactics and response reflects the reality and potential of crime in your own and neighboring jurisdictions. In these dire economic times, mutual aid is a vital necessity.
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