2019 in Review: American Police Officers Under Fire From All Angles

I try really hard to have a positive outlook. However, by all accounts, the year 2019 was an especially brutal one for law enforcement in America, so this year's final column is going to be unapologetically reflective of this undeniable fact.

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I try really hard to maintain a positive outlook on things—seeing silver linings in storm clouds, viewing the glass as half-full, and looking for the good in people—and for the most part, my weekly column tends to reflect that mindset.

Last year's annual review column is a great example of this trait. Although 2018 had ample examples of bad news for police, my end-of-year column was entitled A Glass Overflowing with Great Stories of American Policing.

However, by all accounts, 2019 was an especially brutal one for law enforcement in America, so this year's final column is going to be unapologetically reflective of this undeniable fact.

Attacks on Officers

As of the date of writing this column (December 26), 129 police officers were killed in the line of duty this year.

As is the case for as many years as I've been associated with the law enforcement profession, gunfire was the leading cause of death, with a total of 46 officers feloniously murdered in this way.

Vehicle collisions caused 22 deaths this year.

Sixteen officers died by heart attack, 13 were struck by a vehicle, and 11 succumbed to 9/11 illness. Other causes of death included drowning, heat exhaustion, and training accidents.

This is a substantial decrease in duty deaths in comparison to previous years—there were 166 in 2018, 175 in 2017, and 175 in 2016.

Consider however that 215 American police officers died by suicide this year as reported by BlueH.E.L.P.—an organization that tracks police officer suicides while simultaneously seeking to prevent such tragedies from occurring.

For some perspective on this astonishing number of suicide deaths, there were 158 officers reported to have died by suicide in 2018. The number of officers dying by suicide in 2017 was 154. In 2016, that number was 143.

We cannot say for sure that there is an increase in the number of officers who are dying by suicide, but we do know that more are being reported to BlueH.E.L.P. This may be because the stigma of suicide may be vanishing. This may be because the conversation about police officer mental health is more common today than it had previously been.

In addition to those tragic deaths, the year 2019 also had countless incidents in which officers survived but were wounded—sometimes severely.

The New York Police Department released data in August indicating that injuries to its officers have risen 12.5 percent in the second quarter vs. the first three months of the year. The department said that there were 1,120 total reported assaults from April to June 2019, a jump of 2.5% over the same period last year. The agency said that 35 officers were seriously hurt and 47 suffered substantial injuries.

Officers came under attack by assailants armed with edged weapons, blunt objects, and body weapons. Offenders tried to ram officers with their vehicles and unleased vicious dogs on police. Officers came under attack both on and off duty.

An argument can be made—and I'm about to make it—that this violence against police is indicative of the seemingly incessant anti-police sentiment in America, particularly among certain elected officials and other people in position to influence public opinion.

Anti-Police Sentiment

In the past year, we've seen myriad attacks on officers that are reflective of an underlying anti-police sentiment in the United States.

We've had politicians—from Bill DeBlasio to Gavin Newsom to Elizabeth Warren to Joe Biden to Bernie Sanders—all make blatantly anti-police statements, which in turn emboldens anti-police members of the public in their attacks on officers.

We had a University of California professor—who teaches English and comparative literature at UC Davis, and according to his official bio specializes in Marxism and "the end of capitalism"—said in an interview published in early 2016, "People think that cops need to be reformed. They need to be killed."

Meanwhile, rioters dumped trash on a New York Police Department squad car on Halloween. Just a few weeks before that, rioters were seen on video dumping buckets of water on officers with the NYPD. This came just weeks after officers with the NYPD suffered non-life-threatening injuries as anti-police mobs threw objects such as glass bottles and debris at them.

And of course there have been myriad examples of restaurant workers tampering with officers' food, and coffee shop employees refusing to serve officers.

All this anti-police sentiment is surely one of the factors leading to a hiring crisis in hundreds—if not thousands—of police agencies across the country. Young people look at the current climate and see a variety of other career choices as being more favorable.

The Bright Side

At the open, I revealed that I generally try to be an optimistic person. I'm going to close this dark curtain on 2019 by sharing a handful of bright spots that left an indelible mark on my memory of the past year. Here are a few that come immediately to mind.

  • Donut Boy, who has traveled to more than 40 states and delivered more than 70,000 donuts to say thank you to LEOs
  • "Running for Heroes" Zechariah Cartledge, who runs a mile for every fallen officer while carrying a Thin Blue Line flag
  • The Utah high school dance team that dressed in outfits resembling police uniforms and performed before their classmates a dance in honor of law enforcement

This is indisputable proof that support for law enforcement exists, even if it is regularly outshouted by the small percentage of people in the press and the public who want you to believe that most Americans hate you.

They don't.

They may not even think about you until you catch them doing 70 in a 65, or until they desperately need you to come to their aid—aside from the abovementioned speeding violation, they are not criminals.

For most Americans, you're the woodwork.

Members of the military and employees of the sanitation department share this unfortunate anonymity.

For many Americans, you're only noticed in your absence—like when 129 of you are killed in the line of duty, or 215 of you die by suicide.

Hindsight... and a 2020 Vision

Looking back, 2019 was really not very different from every other year in the past half-decade or so. There were highs and lows, ups and downs, positives and negatives. We had attacks on officers as well as civilians coming to the aid of officers in need of assistance.

This New Year marks the start of a new decade, and possibly the beginning of a new era. Let's not think today about where law enforcement will be a year from now. Instead, consider what law enforcement will look like in 2030.

What will be the number of duty deaths 10 years from now? If we continue to teach the five tenets of the Below 100 program we might actually get that number down—understanding that it will never be zero—to something less heinous than recent years.

What about police officer suicides? If law enforcement can change the "tough guy" culture and create an environment where it's "okay to not be okay" and get mental health treatment without stigma or negative ramifications, we might reduce those numbers as well.

Will the pendulum of public opinion swing back in favor of the silent majority of American citizens who respect and admire police officers? Maybe, if law enforcement continues to evolve its engagement with those citizens in person and on social media, where police can help control the narrative.

Will the hiring crisis have been resolved? Possibly—if police engage in a meaningful way with kids now in elementary school, middle school, and high school—and inform potential recruits about the myriad benefits of working in law enforcement.

Admittedly, those are lofty long-term goals.

They're ten years out. 

Let's begin with 2020... and see where we go from there.

Happy New Year, my friends. Stay safe out there.


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