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Back to Archives | Back to May 2005 Contents 

Police Week 2005

Craig W. Floyd, Chairman, National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, Washington, D.C.

t was Sunday morning, last May 9. My clock radio woke me and, as always, it was tuned to the all-news channel. Two stories made it through the cobwebs. A police officer in Alexandria, Virginia, had been involved in a fatal shooting. He had responded to a domestic disturbance call and was violently attacked by the male suspect. The officer’s life was in danger and he was forced to shoot and kill his assailant.

In Maryland, State Trooper Anthony Jones was clearing debris from the roadway at an accident scene when he was struck and killed by a drunken driver. There were few details offered in either case, but I heard all I needed to know. It hit me like a ton of bricks. While my family and I slept safely and soundly that night, one police officer was killed and another easily could have been. As I climbed out of bed, I was struck by the eerie timing of the news. Sunday, May 9, was the official beginning of National Police Week — a time to honor and recognize the extraordinary service and sacrifice of America’s law officers. The importance of the week all of a sudden seemed a little clearer.

Sadly, Trooper Jones was not the first officer killed in 2004, nor would he be the last. In fact, the United States lost 154 federal, state, and local law officers in the line of duty last year. And, if history is any indication, another 58,000 officers were assaulted and about 16,000 of those assaults resulted in injury.

As law enforcement honors fallen heroes this month, I would encourage all of us to reflect on the causes of these deaths and see if we cannot learn some lessons that might help to save others who will follow in their footsteps.

Preliminary data shows that there were two primary causes of death this past year. Fifty-seven of the officers were shot to death, and 51 died in automobile accidents.

At first glance, the number of officers shot to death (57) would appear to be the most troubling statistic, since shootings were the number one cause of death. But, in relative terms, this number actually reflects a very favorable trend in law enforcement safety. While it is true that more than half of all law enforcement fatalities throughout history have been the result of shootings, the number of officers killed annually by firearms has dropped by 36 percent in the past three decades. There are a number of reasons contributing to this dramatic dip in officers killed by firearms, including better training and equipment, especially the increased use of bullet-resistant vests and nonlethal weapons to help subdue criminal suspects resisting arrest. Tougher criminal justice has also helped, because repeat violent offenders stay behind bars longer. As a result, the public is safer, and so are the police.
There is a more disturbing trend hidden in these numbers, though. Many more officers than ever before are dying in car crashes. Consider, for example, that while shooting deaths have declined by 36 percent in the past three decades, the number of officers killed in automobile accidents annually during that same period has risen by 40 percent. Between 1975 and 1984, there were 339 officers killed in auto accidents, compared to 476 who died behind the wheel in the most recent 10-year period (1995-2004).

Better driver training for law enforcement personnel is an essential component to stemming this dangerous trend. A study several years ago showed that some law enforcement agencies were providing no high-speed driver training for their officers, while still others were providing only a bare minimum. Policies governing high-speed pursuits have received careful scrutiny in recent years, and further reflection is necessary to determine when it is appropriate for officers to chase after fleeing automobiles, and what less dangerous options might exist.

Safer automobiles will also make an important difference. Fire prevention and suppression equipment in law enforcement vehicles need to be used more to reduce the risk of fires caused by a crash. Improved safety restraint systems that are both practical and effective should also be considered so that officers are given maximum protection in the event of an accident.

Stepped-up measures in each of these areas can go a long way toward reducing deaths and injuries among the men and women who protect our communities. Ultimately, though, it will be up to law enforcement leaders and policy makers to determine the best ways to improve police safety.

In the meantime, we must do all that we can to honor and remember the officers who made the ultimate sacrifice, and their families.
During National Police Week 2005, the names of officers who died in 2004 in the United States will be inscribed on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., and by the end of this decade a national law enforcement museum will be established to tell the stories of their service and sacrifice. Similar honors will occur in Canada for that country’s fallen heroes.

Texas Highway Patrol Chief Randall Elliston helped to explain the need for these healing tributes after the death of one of his troopers, Kurt Knapp. He said, “As troopers, we all know our jobs are inherently dangerous, and we accept that danger. However, knowing and accepting that danger does not in any way lessen the pain we feel when one of our troopers is lost in the line of duty.”


From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 5, May 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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