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Mass. officers know the danger of their jobs

With new tactics available for police, criminals are trying to gain an edge.

By Damien Fisher
Sentinel & Enterprise

FITCHBURG, Mass.  — David Gordon is approaching his sixth year as a Fitchburg police officer. He knows being a cop is not like any other profession.

(AP Photo/David Kamerman, Pool)
"It's not a regular job, you know it, your wife knows it, your family knows it, your mother knows it," he said.

What goes unsaid for Gordon and other officers is the danger of day-to-day police work.

He won't talk about the close calls he has had over the years, but he acknowledges being a police officer can put you in dicey situations.

"You don't have to be out on the street very long to know that," Gordon said.

The job of police officer was a deadly one in 2007, with a spike in job-related deaths reported nationwide, according to a report by Washington D.C.-based advocacy groups the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and Concerns of Police Survivors.

As of Dec. 26, 186 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty, up 28 percent from 2006 when 145 officers died doing their jobs, according to the report.

"Outside of 2001, when 239 officers died -- 72 in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- 2007 is the deadliest year for American law enforcement since 1989," the report states.

Gordon decided to become a police officer several years ago while he was driving a truck.

"Like a lot of guys, I wanted to make a difference," Gordon said. "It's a dangerous job, but maybe that's why a lot of guys want to do it, they like the danger."

Gordon started as a campus police officer at Fitchburg State College and worked there for a couple of years before moving on to the city department.

Gordon tries not to think about the danger when he leaves for work. He said it wouldn't help.

"You can't think about it all the time," Gordon said.

The spike in job-related deaths is surprising to Fitchburg Sgt. Glenn Fossa who, as a veteran, knows how dangerous being a police officer can be.

"It's a dangerous job, especially for the line officers," Fossa said and added better training, equipment and logistical support has decreased the danger, though it still exists.

"Police are safer now than they have been in the past," he said.

The report shows a general trend of decreasing deaths over the decades. Officer deaths peaked in 1974 with 277 and then steadily decreased, except for an increase in 2001, according to the report.

"The annual average number of officers killed was 228 in the 1970s, 190 in the 1980s, 160 in the 1990s and 167 from 2000 to 2006," the report states.

The number of officers killed by gunfire went up dramatically in 2007, according to the report. The report shows a 33 percent increase in shooting deaths, with 69 officers fatally shot in 2007 and more than 52 shot and killed in 2006.

"Six or more times this year, two or more officers were gunned down in the same incident," according to the report.

Fossa said police now have more options for non-lethal force, such as batons and Tasers, and their training is more focused on de-escalating a potentially dangerous situation. (Read Taser tactics and training injuries.)

The increase in gun violence is not surprising to Fossa, who said police are seeing more guns on the street.

"There certainly has been an increase in the access and willingness to use firearms," Fossa said.

Fitchburg officers are seizing more guns from drug raids than in the past, according to Fossa. While it has not led to an increase in gun violence in Fitchburg, it is troubling, Fossa said.

With new tactics available for police, Fossa said criminals are trying to gain an edge.

Many cars involved in the drug trade are now being equipped with hidden video cameras to take video of police to gain knowledge of police strategies, Fossa said.

"They are using hidden cameras to run surveillance on police cars to diminish our tactical advantage," he said.

While police try to stay a step ahead of the criminals, many deaths result from situations police can't control, Fossa said.

Traffic related deaths rose from 73 in 2006 to 81 in 2007, the report states. That breaks down to 60 officers who died in crashes, six who died in automobile accidents and 15 who were struck by a car and killed while outside their police vehicles, according to the report.

Car accidents that take the life of officers often happen as a result of a pursuit of a suspect, according to the report. The 60 deaths from car crashes in 2007 sets a new record, the report states.

"The need to succeed in catching a suspect can sometimes be a factor," Fossa said.

Fitchburg has strong policies in place dictating police officers actions related to pursuits that have kept the officers and the public safe, Fossa said.

"We've taken steps to limit the dangerousness of the pursuits," Fossa said.

Police are also taking some common sense precautions, like approaching stopped cars from the passenger side, to get the officer out of the street and away from traffic.

Most of the deaths occurred in western and southern states, with California accounting for 11 deaths, Florida had 16 and Texas came in with 22, the report states.

New England remained fairly calm, with two deaths reported in Massachusetts and one in New Hampshire accounting for the only police officer deaths in the region.

Fossa said New England is traditionally safer than other parts of the country, in part, because of the cold winters. Warmer states have always seen more violence against police officers, he said.

"Once you add heat to the equation, it becomes an element," Fossa said.

Though New England is a relatively safe place to be a police officer, the danger of the job is still present.

New threats, like potential terrorist attacks, put police, firefighters and EMTs in greater danger, Fossa said.

Many emergency plans for terrorist attack response rely heavily on local police and fire departments as the first line of defense, Fossa said.

"We now need to be ready for all emergency situations," Fossa said.

Copyright 2007 MediaNews Group, Inc. and Mid-States Newspapers, Inc.

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