The men and women who stand guard against America’s predators have themselves always been subject to sudden and deadly attacks. And there have always been attempts within professional and academic institutions to identify causes for these attacks—always with an eye toward mitigating them. Despite such efforts, each year finds additional names joining the more than 19,000 that already adorn the walls of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
Finding the root of the carnage is problematic and the answers are elusive. Felonious killings of officers spring from a variety of sources: from a suspect's chemically impaired judgment, paranoid ideation, or personal agenda; to an officer's inability to adequately respond to a threat; to inefficiencies in police administration; to a fateful intersection of time and circumstance. In a trio of studies dedicated to law enforcement safety, the FBI dubbed this confluence of variables the "deadly mix."
Some in the news media would have us believe that the deadly mix is now more potent than ever. The alarming number of officers killed in the first quarter of this year found U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder launching an Officer Safety Initiative to look into the matter.
A cursory glance at the numbers seemingly underscores such concerns. Thirty-one officers were feloniously shot and killed from January through mid-May 2011—a 34 percent increase over the same period a year before.
But is this merely a statistical anomaly? Or is something else truly at work?
The annual FBI study of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in 2010 reported that of the 56 murders of officers, 15 were killed in ambushes, eight were investigating suspicious persons, seven were killed in traffic pursuits or stops, six were responding to disturbance calls, and the rest were killed doing other police work.
Professor David Klinger reminds us, numbers only tell part of the story and the death toll of recent months may not be as unusual as some think. "The high point in terms of officers murdered in the last decade was 2001. Seventy officers were feloniously killed, and that's not including the 72 killed in the 9/11 attacks."
Greg Ridgeway, director of the Center on Quality Policing for the RAND Corporation, likewise hesitates to characterize these killings as a trend. "That doesn't mean we can't learn a lot from those incidents that go horribly wrong, but I hesitate to say that there's a long-term trend here at work."
The temptation to take an alarmist view of things can be strong, but the fact remains that more officers have been killed in recent years.
One long-held belief has been that increases in cop killings have historically corresponded with increases in violent crime. As recently as 2007, a spike in officer deaths correlated to a 15 percent spike in violent crime. However, the bump in the numbers of officers killed in 2010 and 2011 coincided with a decline in violent crime elsewhere.
In Chicago, murder rates dropped precipitously during 2010, a year that saw three officers shot and killed (in one of the shootings, a retired law enforcement officer was also assassinated). Illinois eventually saw nine of its officers die during that same time span, and the state of Florida actually surpassed that number in the first few months of 2011. So while murder rates have fallen across the country overall, law enforcement has not been a beneficiary of such drops. Which leaves a lot of researchers scratching their heads and some others saying, "I told you so."
Programmed To Kill
A decade ago, researchers predicted skyrocketing crime rates by 2010 as Generation Y, weaned on rap songs and violent video games, began to come of age. Taken at face value, the numbers belie the contention: There has not been a demonstrable uptick of crime within that demographic.
However, if the fluctuating of statistics over the past two decades does not necessarily serve to bolster such contentions, then the claims of the suspects do. Time and again, defense attorneys have pointed to the pernicious influence of countless hours spent listening to murderous rap songs, watching violent movies, and playing so-called "cop killer" video games.
Perhaps the most infamous example is Devin Moore, who as a teenager shot and killed two Alabama police officers and a dispatcher while fleeing a police station. Moore shot his way through the station with an ease and familiarity learned from months spent playing the video game "Grand Theft Auto." Upon his ultimate apprehension he said, "Life is a video game. Everybody's got to die sometime." Moore was convicted and sentenced to death two years later.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, co-author of the 1999 treatise "Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence," says that video games, TV, and movies are giving kids killing skills and teaching them that cops are fitting targets for their murderous urges.
"The kid playing 'Grand Theft Auto,' which is a cop-killing simulator, at 6-7-8-9-years-old is 'programmed' to be a cop-killing gangbanger like nothing we have ever seen before," says Grossman. "Then there is the impact of cop-hating movies. How many movies can you think of where the cop is the bad guy? Even the good cops spend most of their time hunting down 'bad cops.' Combine this with trendy cop haters in the liberal news media, twisting and distorting the news, emphasizing any bad news about cops, reinforcing their own left-wing beliefs and raining sympathy on the 'poor abused' criminals. Finally, there is the impact of gangs (with gang membership on the rise) who tell kids that the cops are the enemy."[PAGEBREAK]
Some researchers argue that Grossman's concerns about a generation of programmed killers are overblown. But others point to popular entertainment as one of many influences on a generation of young men who have embraced criminality and a criminal lifestyle. Many of these young men have served time, don't want to go back, and are willing to kill cops to stay free.
Ex-cons represent 74 percent of cop killers so far this year. In an ideal world, this population would have no access to firearms. Some see this as an argument for more gun control while others argue that guns are not the problem, revolving door justice without sufficient parole oversight is the
Grossman argues that revolving door justice and entertainment industry influence combine to make bad guys more willing to attack law enforcement officers.
"All of these social factors intersected to give us the killer of four cops in a coffee shop in Lakewood, Wash.," explains Grossman. "He did not know those officers. He killed them because of the uniform they wore. When people who don't know you kill you because of the uniform you wear, there's a word for that. It's called 'war.' The gangs, backed by video games and movies and the whole cop-hating aspect of our news media and society, have declared war on cops."
Jeff Chudwin, president of the Illinois Tactical Officers Association and chief of the Olympia Fields (Ill.) Police Department, agrees that the effect of violent media on at-risk individuals is a serious matter that cannot be ignored.
"Not every kid who watches video games becomes a mass murderer," Chudwin acknowledges. "But I believe that those who are looking for some type of violent ending gain some type of momentum or strength from this. Today's criminals are simply more willing to fight than be taken into custody. You can't treat it as a novelty. You have to treat it as a fact of life."
Grossman's assertions are alarming, but what's really distressing is that some researchers believe fundamental changes in society are behind the rise in violence against cops.
Jon Shane, a criminal justice professor at The John Jay College of Criminal Justice, cites several studies that suggest increased violence against officers may be a byproduct of the erosion of authority in parent-child, teacher-student, and government-civilian relationships and a willingness of citizens to question governmental authority with escalating degrees of resistance.
Howard Webb, executive director of the American Council on Criminal Justice Training, has also observed a general lack of civility and respect for authority among today's youths.
"You have a generation of children who have never been disciplined or experienced the word 'no' who are now becoming adults," Webb says. "So time and again the first real challenge that they get from authority is in the form of law enforcement, and they act out violently."
Shane says this is leading people to challenge authority more willingly. "People who are doing this are finding support with their peers. No one is condemning their actions. Resisting police in a physical way seems like the next logical step," he told Auburnpub.com.
Another factor in the rising police body count is that criminals have increased their level of tactical sophistication and weaponry. They are even compensating for our protective measures, going for larger caliber weapons and head shots. All but one of the 56 murders of officers in 2010 were effected by means of a gun. Thirty-eight of the officers killed were wearing body armor at the time of their shootings.
By targeting officers north of their body armor, donning their own ballistic-resistant vests, and arming themselves with multiple weapons, criminals are keeping themselves engaged in the fight longer. By protracting confrontations with law enforcement, suspects are able to migrate from one area to another, often taking the fight to their home turf. Suspects have even rigged explosives within their own residences and vehicles with the intent of killing more officers after their own deaths. Armed with the home field advantage, the suspect retains the upper hand.
Behind the Curve
Dragged into this dance of death, officers invariably operate at a deficit. Law enforcement cannot conduct preemptive strikes like the military. Officers are obligated to the perpetual role of reactor. Furthermore, when a debilitating shot is taken by either the suspect or the officer, the officer invariably comes out on the losing end of the equation. While the officer will typically use just the amount of force required to subdue the attacker, the suspect in a similar situation will almost always finish the job.[PAGEBREAK]
This imbalance in the action-reaction equation simultaneously empowers society's non-conformists while inhibiting cops from taking appropriate action when needed. Webb suggests that law enforcement administrators are taking the wrong approach to solve this problem.
"What is happening is that the administrators that are overseeing academy policies and practices are themselves out of touch with the realities of the day-to-day job," Webb argues. "It starts from the top down. Many administrators try to make the case that the job has changed when it really hasn't. It's as much political correctness causing these officers' deaths as it is society in general."
Law enforcement is constantly reacting to society's demands for change based on past events. In the aftermath of any high-profile incident, officers' actions are dissected and placed under a microscope for all to analyze. Even those with little or no expertise in the matter have their say in the media and other forums. Department administrators devote so much time and effort responding to these concerns that they lose sight of new threats that loom around the corner. As yesterday's policy changes are implemented, officers are faced with every new challenge that today's suspects bring.
Webb says that while the academy curriculum 30 years ago was severely lacking, training today is not the issue. "The problem that we've been experiencing with officer survival during the last couple of years is more cultural than it is anything else," he explains. "Certainly, law enforcement has become increasingly sophisticated in its training of police officers in officer survival and driving tactics. Training is better now than it has ever been before. Certainly, it's probably why the number of officers killed in traffic accidents has been reduced.
"At the same time our society has become sissified thanks to all manner of lawsuits. I hear from these younger officers who say that they do not get paid to go hands-on with suspects: 'I don't get paid to fight suspects.' I tell them, 'I hate to tell you this, but that's exactly what you get paid for. When someone yells fight or gun, we run toward it.' Their mentality, I believe, is a byproduct of not playing contact sports and an over-reliance on technology. This whole dumbing down of society when it comes to survival skills has taken its toll. Not to sound hard-hearted, but the one thing that we have to do as a profession is to critically analyze these officers' deaths and not just go to their funerals and say how nice they were. The reality is most of the time it comes down to a mental attitude that reflects the erosion of warrior ethos."
So, is law enforcement truly becoming a more dangerous profession? According to Ridgeway, that may not necessarily be the case.
"We've seen a fluctuation over the past decade in the number of felonious cop killings. A bigger point is that policing has become a safe profession. By that, I mean compared to other professions that are not seated at desks, not dealing in retail. Relative to other professions that are outside doing stuff—deep sea fishermen, construction workers, loggers—policing is among them a safe profession. Some, like bartenders and taxi cab workers, are subject to the same threats as those facing law enforcement with higher rates of fatality. I think there's a big success story in policing about how much attention has been paid to officer safety in mitigating both the felonious killing of police officers and traffic collisions."
Ridgeway prefers that the profession not flagellate itself by fixating on the negative and ignoring its successes. One can understand Ridgeway's hesitancy. Indeed, there is an inability to make a statistical correlation between the spikes in officer killings of the early 1970s and today.
The intervening decades have seen advancements in tactical protocol and logistical support, threat identification, and medical intervention. Ballistic-resistant vests—virtually unavailable in 1974—have saved more than 2,500 officers' lives. Historically, there has not been any data contrasting those incidents wherein suspects successfully killed cops and those incidents wherein suspects engaged officers with an intent to kill, but failed.
An argument could be made that such comparisons should be made available. But however formidable the tracking of such data would be, Grossman might still look at it askance. He cites the lack of reliable crime data currently in circulation as an example.
"We have been fudging the figures and cooking the books for so long, I don't think anyone knows how bad it really is," he notes. "The upshot is that the situation is much worse than it looks and we will inevitably pay the price for our decades of lies. The 'social contract'—the foundation for almost every society and government in history—is breaking down."
The effectiveness of law enforcement's contract with society is judged mainly by data collected by the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Since 1929, law enforcement agencies across the United States have provided information about the number of types of offenses committed; the age, gender, and race of arrestees; weapons used in crimes; the number and types of sworn and civilian officers employed; and a host of other data. Open to interpretation by law enforcement administrators, municipal leaders, criminologists, sociologists, legislators, lobbyists, media, and watchdog groups—particularly in light of allegations of racial profiling—it stands to reason that there may be inconsistencies in the way data is reported by individual agencies.
Grossman warns that cops and administrators who willfully ignore the empirical evidence presented to them do so at their own jeopardy.
"We desperately need courageous, heroic law enforcement leaders who will throw down the BS flag and let people know how bad it really is," Grossman asserts. "The four dead people in Lakewood were a warning shot. It is the all-time record body count of cops, by a single perp, in a single incident, in American history.
"And it is just the beginning."
Editor's Note: In next month's conclusion, POLICE will examine ways that officers, administrators, and society as a whole can minimize the police body count and end the blood bath.