Those of us who have been around for awhile see the rise in officer fatalities this year as something more than what the media, or even our own gut reactions, are telling us. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, in the first half of 2014 officer fatalities increased 31% over the same time period in 2013.
Twenty-six officers alone were killed in traffic-related incidents in the first half of 2014, which is a 37% increase over the same time period last year. And for the second year in a row, traffic-related incidents were the leading cause of officer fatalities.
Coming in second place for causes of officer fatalities in 2014 is "firearms-related incidents" with a 56% increase over the same time period for 2013. That's a total of 25 fatalities in the first half of 2014 for firearms-related incidents, compared to 16 in 2013 over the same time period.
Why such a dramatic increase in officer fatalities? Today's law enforcement officer is better trained, better equipped, and if you listen to some of these new recruits, also faster, stronger, and smarter than us dinosaurs.
Has society become more dangerous? Not according to the FBI statistics: violent crime is down, and has been going down for awhile. Could it be that these faster, stronger, and smarter officers are relying too much on technology? Who knows? One thing is for certain; if this alarming trend continues through December, 2014 will be a very bad year for law enforcement.
Violent crime may be down overall, but for those of us working the street, it seems that although the numbers are down, the ones we are dealing with seem to be more violent. This could be because of the gang culture that's captivated our youth for the last couple of decades; the seamlessly nonstop violence depicted on TV, online, and in our movie theatres; this narcissistic me, me, me attitude; or all of the above; or none at all. Your guess is as good as mine.
It would be nice if we could predict future crime trends, but we don't have that luxury and as we saw in the movie "Minority Report," even that has its flaws. Therefore, the only thing we can do is train for the unexpected, and prepare ourselves for that one day that may never happen. It's tough, but it has to be done.
Let's first take a look at the number-one killer of law enforcement officers: traffic-related incidents. The number of single-vehicle crashes involving law enforcement is alarming. I'll come right out and say it; speed is a factor. Whether you're dealing with inclement weather with the possibility of hydroplaning or ice on the roadway or you're just traveling to fast to a call or while engaged in a pursuit, SLOW DOWN.
Thus far in 2014 we've left the roadway and struck trees, been submerged in bodies of water, left the roadway and rolled over, struck other vehicles, and in one case, struck another police vehicle 3.5 miles from the crash scene we were both responding to. I'm not saying that speed was a factor in all of these cases, but it does come into play in some of them. And it bears noting that sometimes speed is not even excessive for the road and weather conditions, but driving that quickly could be above some officers' skill level.
With budget cuts to law enforcement all across the country, has your Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (EVOC) training taken a hit? Some departments have lost their entire EVOC program due to budget cuts. We can point fingers at the politicians, which is going to go absolutely nowhere, or we can come up with a solution. So how about creating your own training course?
It's not as exciting as J turns, or cutting in and out of cones at high speeds, but how about setting up a low-speed skills course in the parking lot during a slow time in the shift? There's no overtime involved, and you can use your duty vehicle, allowing you to leave to answer calls if needed. At the very least it will get officers thinking about their driving habits, which is a good thing.
While you're there, if you're the one conducting the training you can drive home the necessity of wearing your seat belt. Every year we lose officers because they refuse to buckle up. How many accident scenes have you been to and seen what happens when people don't wear their seat belts? Yet we still don't always wear ours.
In the first half of 2014 and every other year, we've lost officers while they were engaged in a vehicle pursuit. Even though a number of departments have severely restricted vehicle pursuits, with some banning them altogether unless it's a known felony, we still keep losing brother and sister officers.
If you're involved in a vehicle pursuit, are you following the four-second rule? It's simply staying at least four seconds behind the vehicle in front of you, whether it's the suspect's vehicle or another police cruiser. This is actually a good rule to follow for your daily driving habits.
In today's blameless society ("Oh, he's a serial killer because his parents spanked him as a child."), we need to take a long hard look at our own training and actions. Am I driving too fast for road, weather, and traffic conditions? Am I driving above my skill level? Does my training in this area need to be improved? If so, have I sought out additional training at my own expense? Am I religious about wearing my seat belt? These are all valid questions you should be asking of yourself, and your fellow officers.
We also need to take a look at the tactics we are using that might put us in danger of engaging in a firefight. I am by no means pointing fingers, and talking about officer fatalities is almost as hard as writing about them, but those who have gone before us would want the rest of us to learn from the incidents they were involved in. We don't have a laboratory to conduct experiments in. Our lessons are learned from the street, and sometimes paid for in blood.
Think about how you respond to calls. Are you pulling up in front of the house on a domestic call when you should be parking down the street and walking in? Are you dropping your guard on that burglary alarm because you've been there 10 times before? Are you parking too close to the bank on that robbery alarm because you assume that nothing is going to happen? You can't let your guard down—ever. If you assume that nothing is going to happen, then when it does you'll be behind the curve trying to play catch-up to the bad guys, which is never a good thing.
Every year a number of law enforcement officers are killed while conducting traffic stops, and the first half of 2014 is no exception. This is something we do all the time, and most times traffic stops are conducted without any problems, so we sometimes get lax and let our guard down, but there are times when things go badly for us.
Honestly evaluate how you're conducting traffic stops. Are you stuck in a rut and following the same pattern every time? If so, mix it up a little. The right side approach is a valid tactic, but so is the left side approach on some occasions. And calling the driver out of the vehicle is also a valid tactic. Not only will this add an element of surprise to your encounters with drivers, but it helps keep your tactics, and your ability to think tactically, sharp and out of that rut of doing the same thing over and over again.
Go online and you'll find numerous news articles about officers who have made the ultimate sacrifice for a free society. You'll no doubt find that you've been involved in some incidents similar to those in which officers lost their lives. Are these officers to blame for their own deaths? Of course not. But it's important for all of us to learn from each other, especially from our brother and sister officers who have made the ultimate sacrifice, those heroes who have gone before us.
It can be difficult to look at yourself and admit that what you've been doing may not be the right way of doing things, but we have to do this to grow, and be safer on the street. It's the only way to break these fatal trends in officer deaths.
Michael T. Rayburn has been involved in law enforcement since 1977, and is the author of five books. He is a former Adjunct Instructor for the Smith & Wesson Academy, and is the owner of Rayburn Law Enforcement Training. He can be reached at www.combatgunfighting.com