A Wake-Up Call … Heeded

By Craig W. Floyd
Chairman and CEO, NLEOMF

When it comes to officer safety, 2007 was a wake-up call for law enforcement in America. One hundred and eighty-one officers died in the line of duty that year, making it one of the deadliest years for peace officers in two decades.

New data for 2008 suggest that law enforcement executives, officers, associations and trainers heeded the call this year—and the country’s peace officers were safer as a result.

Preliminary figures compiled by the NLEOMF show that the number of officers killed in the line of duty this year has declined by 23 percent when compared with 2007. In fact, 2008 will end up being one of the lowest years for officer fatalities in the last four decades.

Fatal shootings plummet 40 percent

Dissecting the 2008 numbers reveals a number of positive developments. For example, after surging in 2007, both fatal shootings and traffic-related fatalities have fallen sharply this year.

Firearms-related deaths plummeted approximately 40 percent. The 41 officers killed by gunfire this year (preliminary total, as of December 30) is the lowest annual total in more than half a century: in 1956, there were 35 firearms-related deaths. Traffic-related fatalities are down 14 percent this year, after reaching an all-time high of 83 in 2007. Officers killed specifically in automobile crashes—the largest category of “traffic-related” deaths—have fallen by 25 percent.

It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact reasons why officer fatalities rise and fall, and the numbers are certainly affected by a number of forces. One of them is the crime rate itself.

After increasing earlier in the decade, the crime rate in the United States has begun to fall again, according to both the federal government and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), which tracks crime trends. What the 2008 data suggest is that law enforcement’s success in reducing crime may have contributed to improvements in officer safety as well.

A similar effect may be at work in the area of highway safety. U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has reported that total traffic deaths are down approximately 10 percent this year—the result not only of Americans driving fewer miles, but also of concerted efforts by law enforcement to make our roadways safer. Once again, the effectiveness of our men and women in blue may be having a positive impact on officer safety.

Greater awareness spurs positive action

As important as some of these larger trends may be, in looking at the dramatic reduction in officer fatalities this year, one cannot discount the impact of increased awareness of the problem in 2008 and the positive actions that resulted.

Awareness. Determined to heighten awareness of officer safety among the general public, policymakers and, especially, the law enforcement profession, the NLEOMF worked to publicize the 2007 surge in officer fatalities. National and local news media covered the story extensively, and officer safety was the focus at a number of training conferences and seminars, including the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), the Big 50 law enforcement union gathering at Harvard and other venues.

Training. With ILEETA and others leading the way, officer safety training took on new urgency in 2008. Trainers placed added emphasis on high-risk entries, responding to domestic violence calls (a particularly deadly situation in 2007), traffic stops and, especially, vehicle pursuits and defensive driving.

Safety steps. Beyond awareness and training, a number of agencies took specific steps to enhance officer safety this year. For example, departments in south Florida and elsewhere began arming their officers with higher-powered weapons to combat the more dangerous guns showing up on the street. In addition, manufacturers such as DuPont continued to work at enhancing safety vest technology, and agencies emphasized the wearing of vests even more. NLEOMF data show that the percentage of officers wearing their vests has increased from just under 50 percent a decade ago to nearly 75 percent today.

In a dangerous profession, areas of concern remain

While trends in officer fatalities were generally positive this year, we all know that law enforcement remains a dangerous profession. Each year over the past decade, an average of 167 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty, and 58,600 officers were assaulted, resulting in some 16,400 injuries. And for the 140 families and the dozens and dozens of law enforcement agencies and communities that lost officers in 2008, the reality is that our law enforcement officers still confront tremendous dangers and still make enormous sacrifices each and every day of the year.

My biggest fear is that some people may use the generally good news on officer safety in 2008 as an excuse to cut law enforcement budgets at the local, state and national levels. Especially as our country confronts difficult financial times, now is definitely not the time to scale back the emphasis on training and equipment that have been so critical to making our officers safer and more effective. In fact, even with the generally good news on officer safety, some areas of concern need further attention:

Female officer fatalities. According to our preliminary data, 15 female officers were killed in 2008, equaling the all-time high of 2002. In terms of percentages, 2008 is the first year in which more than 10 percent of the officers killed were women. As more women have entered and advanced in the law enforcement profession over the years, and as women have taken on the higher-risk assignments traditionally held by their male colleagues, it should be no surprise that more female officers would be killed in the line of duty. Still, the high percentage of female fatalities this year deserves further study.

Offenders on probation or parole. In recent years, as many as one-third or more of the criminals who feloniously killed law enforcement officers were on probation or parole at the time of the offense. While the 2008 figure is still being calculated, the danger posed by these offenders remains acute. In Philadelphia, for example, two of the four officers killed this year—Sergeant Stephen Liczbinski and Officer Patrick McDonald—were fatally shot by offenders under community supervision.

Officers struck and killed. While the overall number of traffic-related fatalities is down this year, the number of officers struck and killed while outside their own vehicles increased. The 17 officers struck and killed in 2008 was the highest total since 2001—this, despite the fact that more states have passed and begun to aggressively enforce so-called “move over” laws. So we most certainly need to work even harder on improving officer safety on our roadways.

As we enter 2009, the NLEOMF will continue to monitor officer safety trends and re
port our findings. We will pay particular attention to those areas of concern that continue to place our law enforcement officers in the greatest danger. We hope that by calling attention to the latest trends and issues in officer safety, law enforcement can respond even more effectively through enhanced training, policies and equipment—just as the profession did so well in 2008.