Last week's senseless shooting of Phoenix police Officer Nick Erfle is a horrific tragedy for his family, his department and his community. Sadly, Erfle's death is not an anomaly but rather part of an alarming national trend: 2007 is proving to be one of the most deadly years for law enforcement in the past three decades.
According to preliminary data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, Erfle's was the 135th law-enforcement officer fatality this year. That compares with 97 officer deaths at this time last year, an increase of nearly 40 percent.
There has been only one other year in the past 30 when law-enforcement fatalities were higher. That was 2001, when 237 officers died, including 72 during the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Especially troubling this year is the dramatic spike in fatal shootings of officers. They have increased almost 65 4 percent this year compared with the same period last year (56 in 2007, 34 in 2006). Unfortunately, police departments in the Valley have experienced this national trend firsthand.
Phoenix police Officer George Cortez Jr. was shot multiple times in August while investigating a forged-check complaint. In February, Officer Anthony Holly of the Glendale Police Department was slain during a traffic stop. And Erfle was gunned down after running a name check on a jaywalking suspect.
In all three instances, officers were performing seemingly routine activities. And in each case, armed offenders simply opened fire, further illustrating just how unpredictable and dangerous police work can be.
So what is behind the spike in officer shootings? And what can be done to prevent them in the future? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Improved safety equipment, especially the development of protective body armor, better training and improved emergency medical care have all contributed to a dramatic decline in firearms-related fatalities among law officers since the 1970s. That is what makes the 2007 rise in officer deaths all the more puzzling.
One thing is certain, though. The best equipment, training and medical care in the world will not provide total protection for our officers. Law enforcement is a very dangerous profession, and every assignment is potentially life-threatening.
Making matters worse is a cold-blooded criminal element with no regard for human life. Just consider that six of the cop killers in 2007 killed more than one officer in their vicious attacks, and, as shocking as it may seem, 40 of the cop killers over the past decade were under age 18.
Ever since 9/11, officers across our country have been called upon not only to continue fighting conventional crime in their communities but also to serve as the front line in the war on terrorism here at home. These increasing demands on law enforcement have not always been matched with a comparable increase in resources. Policymakers at all levels of government need to ensure that the needs of our law-enforcement officers are being met so they can effectively and safely serve us.
Amazingly, though, despite the dangers of the job and the mounting challenges they must face, more than 800,000 sworn law-enforcement officers across our nation put their lives at risk each and every day to keep America safe.
We owe them all our eternal gratitude.