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Line-of-Duty Deaths: Managing Risk

Six months into 2011, the body count keeps climbing, but better tactics, training, and equipment can save police lives.

August 12, 2011  |  by - Also by this author

Maybe in the near future human police officers will be joined by robot cops who will make all dangerous contacts. But until these mechanized marshals make their debut, flesh-and-blood officers will continue to bear the brunt of the day-to-day load, with officer safety the focal point of their profession.

Every officer knows going in that police work can be hazardous to one's health. Officers make a conscious decision to assume that risk. The question arising now in what has become an extraordinarily violent year for badged personnel is: how to manage that risk.

It's not as though an officer has little say in his own safety. He dictates the degree of his initiative in field stops. She decides whether or not to wear a seat belt. And data suggest that officers are acting on that discretion, with traffic-related police deaths down for the first six months of the year.

But the drop in vehicular-related fatalities has been offset by a corresponding rise in the number of felonious killings of officers by firearms. Police murders have reached a 20-year high.

Despite these alarming statistics, crime experts point out that the rash of police murders and assaults this year is very small compared to the body count inflicted on cops during the late 1960s and early 1970s. That's absolutely true. But that era's law enforcement blood bath led to the adoption of better police tactics, more comprehensive police training, and the adoption of ballistic armor as standard police equipment. The result was a marked drop in police line-of-duty deaths.

So just because law enforcement officers are not being killed at the rate they once were 40 years ago, does not mean that they are any less likely to be assaulted by suspects who possess the intent to kill. One might reasonably ask if in the absence of the aforementioned improvements the numbers of officers killed in this day and age wouldn't be substantially higher than the epochal levels of the early 1970s.

Given what appears to be a war against law enforcement, what else can be done to improve the profession's odds of ensuring its personnel get home at shift's end?

Better Bullet-Proofing

In 2003, the deterioration of the Zylon material in Officer Tony Zeppetella's vest allowed a suspect's bullet to pass through and sever his carotid artery. Severely incapacitated and unable to escape for cover, the Oceanside, Calif., officer was shot 12 more times and died.

This tragedy proved a major catalyst for change in ballistic wear. Not only has Zylon been banned from use in the manufacture of body armor. The National Institute for Justice (NIJ), which certifies police armor, has also substantially upgraded its testing regimen partially because of the Zylon
experience.

The NIJ says its new testing standard has vastly improved the durability of today's top line ballistic and knife-resistant body armor. But availing cops a better vest is only half the battle. Getting them to wear them is the other half.

Mandating Vest Wear

The life of Jacksonville (Fla.) Sheriff's Office Detective Jared Reston was saved when his ABA Xtreme XT body armor stopped three rounds fired by a suspect in 2008. One of the rounds center-punched its steel plate, and two other rounds would have proven fatal in the vest's absence. But despite his well-publicized example, Reston notes that some veteran officers on his department still won't wear armor.

Excuses for not wearing a vest are many. The weather card is played in particularly hot (Arizona) or humid (Louisiana) climates where larger percentages of officers routinely forego wearing their body armor. And some officers resent the "bulky" appearance body armor gives them. Others resent the prospect of having to buy their own armor and probably wouldn't hesitate to point out Zeppetella's tragic incident for justification: He bought his own and look what it got him.

Such attitudes find Charlotte-Mecklenburg Chief Rodney Monroe contemplating a policy that makes it mandatory for all of his North Carolina agency's street-level officers to wear ballistic body armor.

"We are probably a step away from doing that even though I know there are some people who will argue against that, especially some of our more senior officers," Monroe acknowledged to the Charlotte Observer.

With the Justice Department threatening to withhold millions of dollars in federal aid to local police departments unless they adopt policies that require uniformed officers to wear body armor, many chiefs may be forced to follow Monroe's example whether they like it or not. Starting last April, local police applying for federal funding of body armor are now required to mandate their officers wear vests or forego federal assistance for buying them.

In a USA Today article, Jim Burch, acting director of the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance, defended the policy as neither Draconian nor arbitrary, but a reasonable response to the recent surge in fatal shootings of police officers. Studies have determined that 41 percent of police agencies do not require their officers to wear body armor, and the Justice Department feels that its hand has been forced. In 2010, the federal government distributed $37 million to reimburse 4,127 law enforcement agencies for the purchase of 193,259 vests. Given that investment, the Justice Department's stance is that an agency's cops better wear the vests if the taxpayers buy them.


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