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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

Head Covers

Of course the bad guys know that many officers are wearing armor. In fact, a majority of officers feloniously killed in the line of duty in the last decade succumbed to head wounds.

To better protect its personnel from such threats, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has purchased all of its patrol deputies Level III ballistic helmets. Unfortunately, Sgt. Brian Muller notes that some deputies display a reticence to wear the gear, even when bullets are likely to fly.

"I would like to have seen people wearing helmets more when I was working as a field sergeant," says Muller. "But time and again I would respond to high-risk events where deputies felt the need to have their guns out but wouldn't wear their helmets. Why wouldn't you wear a ballistic helmet when you needed me as a field sergeant to show up with a ballistic shield?"

Muller speculates that part of the problem may be a perceived peer pressure, not unlike that experienced by the first generation of officers given "barrier vests." They believe such protective gear might be an acknowledgment of fear. Regardless of the impetus, it frustrates Muller.

"You'll always have people who don't want to wear something because their peers may laugh at them. If you have a piece of safety equipment, what good is it if you don't use it?" Muller asks.

Training Solution

Despite textbook compliance with good officer safety protocol, an officer can still come up short in bad guy confrontations. For example, there is little an officer can do to prevent an assassin's ambush. Judgment calls come with the job, as well, and there are instances where officers must consciously place themselves in harm's way in a bid to protect other human beings. One deputy summed up the reality bluntly: "There are times when you have to load your balls in a wheelbarrow and go in."

"Going in" may be in response to an active shooter, a burning structure, or an in-progress domestic dispute. In the 2009 case of Pennsylvania Trooper Joshua Miller, it was a courageous attempt to prevent a kidnapped 9-year-old boy from being executed. Miller was one of several troopers who rushed toward a suspect's car at the end of a vehicle pursuit. A shootout between troopers and the kidnapper ensued and Trooper Miller and Trooper Robert Lombardo succeeded in killing the kidnapper. Unfortunately, Miller was shot in the neck and killed. The National Law Enforcement Memorial Wall is filled with names of thousands of similarly heroic officers whose lives were lost in the protection of others.

But even though there are many occasions where officers must take risks, there are just as many where officers take needless chances that place their own lives-as well as others'-in jeopardy. Whether it is standing in the middle of a doorway (the "fatal funnel") or backlighting one's self to a suspect, officers continue to make tactical mistakes. The same adrenaline that enhances one's senses may cloud one's faculties; officers may fail to respond appropriately to threats even as they are apt to pick them up more quickly.

Earlier this year an officer in New York state responded to a garage where negotiators were attempting to deal with a suicidal man who'd barricaded himself with a shotgun after a domestic dispute. After the subject was momentarily incapacitated, the officer approached the man with a TASER in an apparent effort to ensure the man remained so. But the gunman was able to regain control of his shotgun, which he discharged, striking the officer in the neck and killing him. This officer clearly put himself in a very dangerous situation when other options were available.

It's hard for fellow officers to criticize deceased colleagues, but clearly some murdered officers make tactical errors that should not be repeated. Howard Webb, executive director of the American Council on Criminal Justice Training, argues that the critical examination of officers' deaths is vital to preventing needless police deaths.

"When you look at the officers killed in the last few months, you find several that made general technical errors," notes Webb. "I ask myself, Why is this? When I know that I shouldn't pull up next to a suspect on the street and talk to him from my patrol car because I'm allowing him to pull a gun and blow my head off, then why is this happening?"

Webb's question is largely rhetorical: He believes he knows where much of the blame lies.

"It's because of an attitude that starts from the top and works its way down that we are a kinder, gentler profession," Webb states. "And then when something bad does happen, everybody claims victim status."

As Webb notes, staff instructors are conscientious in providing personnel with the necessary training and information. Quartermasters do the best they can to issue needed supplies. However, he and other experts worry that many cops are receiving mixed messages in their training.

Webb's concern is that role play scenarios inevitably have officers insinuating themselves into dangerous situations. A primary purpose is to ensure that safe tactics and sound communication techniques are employed by the trainee. Often, such scenarios drive home the fact that you can only do so much to prevent getting shot. But is enough emphasis being placed on teaching officers that there are often times when they need not make entry? That if a threat is effectively isolated and poses no danger to anyone but himself that time is on the good guys' side? Street officers, in particular, need to recognize that there are times when they need to abstain from entering into a problem and escalating it.

Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

Morning Eagle @ 8/15/2011 11:26 PM

Take it from an old Trooper that served through the turbulent 60's and 70's Dean referred to in this very timely article, anyone serving today that will not take advantage of the technological innovations to enhance officer safety is beyond being merely foolish. We didn't even have ballistic vests that could be worn under the uniform shirt until the early 70's. So what if they are uncomfortable in hot weather or make you look “bulky” - would you rather be dead? Any hesitancy to wear the vest because it might indicate you are afraid or because some of your peers might be stupid enough to laugh at you is inexcusable. I have always been against more federal control of state, county and local departments but in the case of the body armor being funded at least in part by the DOJ, it is understandable that they expect it to be worn. Trouble with that is department heads should not sit around waiting to be told what to do by the feds. Take the responsibility of caring about the safety of your officers and don’t wait for the feds to do it for you. Or would you rather preside over the funeral of an officer that could have been saved by wearing that hot vest against his will but because you ordered him or her to? Lead or get out of the way.

Any person that cannot make up their mind before ever accepting a commission to unhesitatingly use justifiable deadly force is in the wrong profession. Simple as that and it is a potential disservice to fellow officers that might need assistance in a deadly situation. If you are being assaulted by someone that tries to take your service weapon then pulls a knife (considered to be a deadly weapon by the way) and starts slashing you and those attempting to assist you, that is a definite clue it is past TAZER time, it is deadly force time. Put him down and out as much for yourself as for anyone that will have to confront that subject after the courts or parole boards turn him loose on society again. You know they will.

Davesam25G @ 8/16/2011 12:07 AM

Excellent-Very well done indeed...We have come a long way from the 70's W/Gun and my first book read was the patrol operation by IACP 1970 - Then Officer Down Code Three - "The Ten Deadly Sins" hard read on a 6pm to 6am but time was there and damn near read the whole book in one night a hard to put down, by LAPD Detective Pierce Brooks - major factor in development of VICAP also!! I rather be hot and alive... And I might add don't allow the Politically correct syndrome hit you... I am concerned with the current climate in (Both Media and Citizen Concerns many times unfounded and based on emotions vice fact)...May cause hesitation when action is needed and the results to officer could be far-reaching up major injuries and or death. Thank You Sgt Dean Scoville.

Jim-Bob @ 8/16/2011 3:27 PM

Chief Monroe - don't contemplate mandating body armor - JUST DO IT! Other than environmental reasons (which still don't make it right), you have NO excuse to not wear body armor. And if you have that much of an "oh well" attitude, get the hell out of law enforcement! I don't want that attitude backing up me or one of my guys and gals.
Attitude is everything to staying alive today, as our society once again starts its slide back into the volcano. All of you young guys need to become more prepared (not just tactically but just as importantly, MENTALLY prepared) for what you face out there, not just buying more toys.
From one of the old(er) dogs who is still kicking and fighting, STAY SAFE (and wear that damn vest)!

Ima Leprechaun @ 8/16/2011 11:24 PM

There are some things you can do but there is no way to be prepared for every possible contingent while working the street. A vest is nice but in extreme heat climates that vest is just as dangerous to have on as off. I prefer the option of wearing one rather than a departmental requirement based on the following statement "You will always wear your vest because we bought it for you and we don't care how hot it gets outside." I have had some dangerous staph infections caused by vest rashes. I would wear it until the vest is more of a threat than a bullet. Administrations and some cops have no understanding of this. God made me hairy and I can't help it I get a greenhouse effect under my vest. Cool shirts don't work either I have tried them all. I will bet that anyone that doesn't understand this has never had a staph infection from a vest rash or is an administrator.

Also If one Cop dies that is one too many. I don't care if it was statistically more dangerous in the 1960's because its pretty darn dangerous now too. Something is going terribly wrong in the last few years and it appears to be in Basic Officer Training. Ethical Police Behavioral Training seems to be lacking these days.

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