Between January 1981 and January 2001 there were nine Knox County sheriff's deputies shot in the line of duty, most of them before my disability retirement from that agency in 1993. One shooting was fatal, one left physical damage that couldn't be repaired surgically and nobody knows -- of course -- how much permanent psychological damage was done to the surviving officers themselves, as well as their friends and family.
This Tennessee agency (which is now called the sheriff's office rather than department) is a medium-sized police organization in a metropolitan area of maybe 400 thousand people, There were only 125 state-certified officers carrying weapons when I started in 1981. Over half of Knox County is under the jurisdiction of the Knoxville Police Department.
In 1989, while writing my first book, "The Moon Is Always Full," I sat down and calculated that if the New York City Police Department had been shot up at the same rate, over the same time period, the toll of officers wounded in the line of duty would have been around 1500. As a matter of fact, from a strictly statistical point of view, one in five certified officers at Knox County had been shot in the line of duty by 1989.
Now, that is not to suggest that being an officer of the NYPD or any other department is a safe occupation. It just reflects statistics that have varied little for many years. Half the police shootings in the United States occur in a few southeastern states (six or seven of them) and Texas. And this area has a lot less than half of the population of the United States.
Why is this region so bloody? There are all kinds of theories among the so-called experts. I think it's a combination of things. Weapons are more common and as a result cops don't get as excited about them, nor do the states themselves. In Tennessee, being charged with going armed generally results in only a $50 fine unless the offender shoots or threatens someone. In addition, there is a tradition of general firearms usage and hunting in the Southeast and Texas. And there is also a regional culture that views private property as almost sacred. Invade a man's property in this region
and he takes it very personally.
During the same time period when nine officers of the KCSO were being shot at such a high rate, not a single civilian was shot by a Knox County officer. One man was killed in a struggle with a deputy sheriff when the officer's pistol discharged as the suspect was trying to wrench the weapon from his hand, but no Knox County deputy pointed a weapon and shot a civilian during that time. In that 20 year period, the shooting score at the KCSO rose to bad guys nine, good guys zip.
This year, between the first day of January and the second week of February, two suspects have been fatally shot by officers of the KCSO. The first was a 16-year-old suspected arsonist and vehicle thief, who tried to drive away dragging a detective with his pickup truck as the officer attempted to arrest him. No doubt, the detective would have been seriously injured or killed if the suspect had not been shot. The second fatality was a man shot as he emerged from a house trailer, pointing a shotgun at two deputy sheriffs investigating a domestic disturbance and assault.
There are indications that the second fatality was the result of copycat behavior based on an incident in which a suspect had been shot a few days earlier by Knoxville Police Officers in what appeared to have been an unsuccessful attempt at "suicide by cop." And yet a fourth shooting, the third fatality in Knox County, in 2001 occurred a little over a week ago as a suspect allegedly try to run his vehicle over several Knoxville city officers who had pursued him to a dead end.
Reeling from the events of the first two months of 2001, many Knox County deputies are asking each other why -- after all these years -- the shooting has suddenly turned fatal. Is society becoming more dangerous? Is it caused by better weapons? After all, a single semiautomatic pistol may hold more ammunition in one magazine than most officers once carried in their revolvers and ammunition pouches.
One can only hope that Knox County officers have experienced a statistical fluke, a glitch, and not a rising trend. Those of us who have been there know how difficult it is when a comrade is gunned down. Officers who have been unfortunate enough to have been placed in a position in which they had no choice but use their weapons, can tell you that sometimes it's easier to recover from a gunshot wound than from having shot another human being.
David Hunter is a retired detective and the author of several books. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org