Line-of-Duty Deaths: Managing Risk

The rash of police murders and assaults this year is small compared to the body count inflicted on cops during the late 1960s and early 1970s. 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.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot


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

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.[PAGEBREAK]

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.[PAGEBREAK]

Once faced with a deadly confrontation, officers must be trained to respect the speed with which suspects can launch an assault with a gun, according to Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute. He cites a number of cases in which officers were gunned down in less than one second.

"The average suspect can present a gun-from a pocket, from a waistband, from a vehicle console, from his side, from under his body-and fire in any direction in just one-quarter of a second," Lewinski says. "That's faster than the average officer can shoot, even if his weapon is on target, his finger is on the trigger, and he has already decided to fire. That's because of the time it takes to mentally process and impel a reaction to the suspect's action."

Lewinski argues that keeping the one-quarter-second figure in mind during training exercises will affect officers' behavior in approaching and contacting a suspect, choosing cover, and using verbal commands. He adds that officers who learn to effectively read and react to a suspect's behavior have the best chances of coming out on top when the suspect decides to attack.

"The most skilled officers, using their training and experience, tend to know where, when, and how a threat situation is going to unfold," Lewinski explains. "If you're attentive to physical movements and verbal cues, which are sometimes subtle, you often can detect and then defuse or suppress potential threats before you get caught behind the reactionary curve."

Officer Selection

One controversial question that many law enforcement trainers and tactical experts are beginning to raise is whether some of the current generation of officers are really suited to the job. 

Just as some officers display different degrees of proficiency with their weapons and tactics, so, too, do they exhibit varying degrees of enthusiasm in deploying them. Police agencies thus find themselves alternately trying to encourage some officers to display greater initiative in using necessary force and reining in the more assertive types.

The press and the courts keep the public aware of officers who abuse their position with violence. What the public and even other officers are less likely to hear about are those officers who routinely use too little force because they are either not capable or not so inclined.

The officer who fails to deploy force when it is necessary is every bit a threat to the profession and the public as the one hell-bent on getting notches on his gun. Such officers ultimately prove to be liabilities, leaving not only themselves unnecessarily vulnerable to a violent assault, but their fellow officers, as well.

Whether it is a religious influence or a fundamental philosophical posture against the taking of a human life, otherwise worthy candidates may lack the fortitude to engage an adversary with all necessary force. This phenomenon has seen officers with names like Kyle Dinkheller and Ken Wrede added to the Memorial Wall. One might be tempted to say they failed themselves. But in the case of some—like West Covina (Calif.) PD Officer Ken Wrede, who was killed in the line of duty in 1983—reticence to take a human life had been well established. And the failure of supervisors to address these concerns leave them also to blame.

"Not much can be done during the hiring process to weed out potential officers who are reticent to fire a gun," notes LASD's Muller. "However, once the officer is hired and it becomes known that he doesn't carry a bullet in the chamber or he says that he can't use deadly force, it becomes the responsibility of people in higher ranking positions to put this guy on the desk or give him a reevaluation of why he joined law enforcement to begin with. To enforce the law sometimes we have to use deadly force. If he's said that he can't use deadly force, then you can't rely on this guy to do what he has sworn to do to uphold the law. To uphold the law, you may have to take a life to save a life."

Whether due to lack of training or personal conviction, officers often find themselves unable to pull the trigger when absolutely necessary.

"We've all seen dash-cam videos of officers standing in the open and repeatedly yelling commands like: Drop the gun!" at noncompliant, threatening offenders," points out Lewinski. "The officers are not using the deadly force that they're legally justified in using, and they're not doing anything else-like moving to cover or withdrawing-to gain a tactical advantage. These officers get caught in a repetitive verbal loop because they perceive they are losing control of the situation and they can't figure a way out. They are tactically frozen."

Lewinski calls on officers to prepare themselves for such events long before they happen. Toward that end, departments can improve training, provide an abundance of realistic force-on-force scenarios, evaluate and mentor officers who may be reticent to use deadly force when necessary, and supply and enforce the wearing of efficient body armor. However, when department funding and manpower is not sufficient to provide these activities, officers need to step up to the plate, even on their own time.

Conventional wisdom says that there's only so much that an agency can do to protect its officers. Individuals and organizations that work alongside law enforcement continue to advance officer safety studies and training techniques. Some even believe the profession stands on the cusp of a new era in which spider-silk vests and nano-wear will afford officers even safer and more comfortable protection. Such innovations will help officers survive more assaults and perhaps staunch the flow of the blood bath.

Technological innovation is only one part of mitigating the deadly hazards faced by American law enforcement officers. Selecting the best candidates and providing them with an environment-both physically and politically-in which they can perform their jobs more safely may be even more critical to officer survival.


Line-of-Duty Deaths and the War on Cops

Law Enforcement Fatalities by Gunfire Reaches 20-Year High

Is Law Enforcement Entering a Deadly New Era?

Fighting the Wrong Battle

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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