Never let them walk alone: Learning from those who sacrificed
Early each year several federal agencies as well as several private websites (the Officer Down Memorial Page is my personal favorite) publish the law enforcement officers killed statistics for the previous year. As law enforcement officers, supervisors and trainers, we need to study this information closely to see how we can improve our own operations and ultimately, our own safety and the safety of our personnel. I would even recommend we start including our critical support staff, the call takers and dispatchers in reviewing the data to improve their ability to anticipate risks and determine the information needed by their line personnel.
In 2006 the US lost 142 police officers in the line of duty (this includes Puerto Rico), down from 156 in 2005. How did these officers die? As you might expect, 51 were killed by gunfire, but surprisingly 3 of those 51 were shot accidentally (one was a plainclothes officer shot by uniformed officers who thought he was a burglar, one was shot by fellow officers who were trying to rescue him while he grappled with a suspect armed with two knives and one was shot during a “live fire” training exercise). One corrections officer was stabbed to death by an inmate, two police officers were killed by physical assaults not involving weapons, and one officer (an Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent) was killed by a roadside IED while on a mission in Iraq.
Seventy-two of the officer deaths involved motor vehicles or motorcycles. Forty two were killed in vehicle or motorcycle crashes, 3 were killed while pursuing fleeing criminals, 11 were struck by vehicles while out of their cars, and 16 were killed in vehicular assaults.
Three officers died in helicopter crashes, 10 died from heart attacks, and two died from a duty-related illness (one from a brain aneurysm while responding to a “man with a gun” call, and one from a respiratory disease he contracted during rescue & recovery operations at the World Trade Center’s “Ground Zero”).
The average age of these officers was 37, the average tour of duty was just short of 11 years, five of them were female.
Our whole philosophy is that the best way to honor these heroes is to LEARN from their sacrifice. These men and women must never be forgotten and in honor to them here are just a few of the lessons we can take away from these tragedies:
Vehicular-related incidents are killing us more often than felonious assaults!
Let’s face a few facts: we are the most distracted drivers on the planet, between the MDB flashing, beeping and ringing, the various police radios, your chirping Nextel, and general vehicle operation combined with good, observant police patrol, we are distracted. Add a hot call and a code response and you’re asking for trouble.
Remember, you can’t help anybody if you don’t get there. Slow down just a little, ask for updates over the air, ignore your cell phone, and keep radio traffic to a minimum. When you’re out of your car on a traffic stop, directing traffic, or on foot for any other reason, be extremely aware of the traffic around you. Assume that most drivers do not see you, and then make sure they do before stepping into traffic. Don’t forget to leave yourself a wide safety lane when stopping or vehicle or helping a disable motorist.
Learn about and pay attention to “Pre-Attack Postures!”
Understanding body language can be one of our best tools. Read Signals by Alan Peace or Gavin DeBecker’s The Gift of Fear. Many of the officers killed missed pre-attack posturing by their assailants that might have saved their lives. We often get “de-trained” by routine that these pre-attack indicators are only the actions of a nervous individual!
Train to retain your tools!
Many of the officers killed were attacked with their own handguns, rifles, and other tools. Learn about and PRACTICE realistic gun retention techniques (and don’t just rely on your retention holster, they are NOT foolproof) and make sure you maintain control of all your tools.
Maintain or begin your fitness program!
Ten of the officers who died on duty in 2006 suffered fatal heart attacks. And before you young officers skip to the next paragraph, read this: The average age of these officers was 39, the youngest was 28, the oldest was 57, but most were in their 30’s and very early 40’s and all of them were men.
Keep fighting no matter what!
Fifty eight thousand police officers were assaulted last year, 16,000 were injured, but only 51 died as a result of their injuries, that means over 97% of the officers assaulted and injured SURVIVED! And despite being mortally wounded by gunfire, Detective Dennis Stepnowski of DeKalb County, GA and Special Agent Buddy Sentner of the US Department of Justice were both able to return fire, killing their assailants. Remember this fact, the vast majority of people shot and stabbed live, so never give up!
These are just a few of the valuable lessons we can learn from our fallen brothers and sisters. Please take a moment to reflect on the sacrifice these officers made in 2006, and then pledge to make 2007 the safest year ever! This can be done only as a conspiracy of excellence throughout our profession and at every level from call taker to Chief!
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with Andrew L. Butts