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Why are so many older cops being killed?

Applying the law of large numbers to recent officer fatalities may reveal a disturbing trend — at the very least it makes us stop and think

Michael Grassi

By Dave Smith, Senior Street Survival Instructor
& Betsy Brantner Smith, Street Survival Instructor


We’ve noted the increase in multiple officer homicides and the predatory nature of the attackers over the last year, and now we are trying to make sense of the assaults and accidents that have plagued us so far this year. In the first two months of 2010, we’ve seen an odd trend that requires reflection: an unusually high number of older cops are being killed in the line of duty. Just today, we awoke to the news that Sgt. Alan Haymaker, a 56-year-old, third-generation Chicago cop, was killed when his squad car crashed on Lake Shore Drive while he was responding to a burglary.

At the time of this article going to press, a total of 15 (with an average age of 57+) out of the 31 cops who have died in the line of duty this year are age 45 years old or older. Nearly half!

In the Street Survival Seminar — and in our own training classes — we discuss the impact of routine on our performance. One of the indicators of this is the long-term average age of officers killed: it’s consistently about age 37 with 11 years on the job. This year has started violently enough to give anyone pause, but the real numbers that astound us are the ages of the average officer killed: 45 years of age with just under 16 years of experience!

The greatest problem we face when analyzing line of duty deaths are all the variables involved and the temporal proximity to the event. In other words, if history and trends are changing, it is too recent and we don’t have the numbers to be sure. Neither of us did great in “Statistics 101,” but a couple of things really ring true about numbers, random events, and trends. The first of these is the “Law of Large Numbers.”

Simply stated, a law of large numbers is one of several theorems expressing the idea that as the number of trials of a random process increases, the percentage difference between the expected and actual values goes to zero.

Okay, more simply stated, if the odds of a fair coin coming up heads are 50 percent, then the more tosses of the coin, the greater the average will trend toward 50 percent. That is why casinos hate to see you walk away from a table while you are ahead. The more you play, the greater the house advantage will manifest itself — you will eventually lose if you play long enough. Since we are dealing with so short a time frame and relatively few numbers, we are essentially seeing four “heads” tossed in a row. Each toss is still a 50/50 proposition, but the odds against four in a row is .5 x .5 x .5 x .5 or one in 16 (or something like, that since this is math and we didn’t do so well in math).

So, back to our current issue: 1.) on average, our older officers are dying; 2.) there are more aggressive assaults; 3.) there have been lots of accidents; and 4.) the year has just begun. Kind of like throwing four heads in a row so far. In our profession, we see a guy throw four heads in a row and we check the damn coin. So let’s do that now.

There are so many variables involved in our line of duty deaths. Consider the environmental concerns like a record-breaking, ridiculously cold winter causing officers to drive in conditions to which they may not be accustomed. Perhaps “older officers” (age 40 and above) who have not grown up in a “Wii world” are more distracted by the ringing, pinging and flashing that goes on in the cockpit of the average police car. And from personal experience, checking a text while driving is like walking a tightrope for us boomers (and don’t say you don’t do that — we all do it). Additionally, there is now no doubt that we are seeing surges in the predatory class of perpetrators (read: dirtbags) out there who are hunting, and in some cases, killing police officers.

Only time will give us the data we need to see if this is an emerging trend or statistical anomaly. Here’s the bottom line: we cannot confuse the world of gaming with the real world issues we face on the street. Regardless of who you are or how long you’ve been on the job, the street is far more complex, dangerous, and unpredictable than any casino or card game could ever be and the stakes are vastly higher.

The simple point of this article is that we won’t have enough data to determine if a true change or pattern is occurring in line-of-duty death until several years have passed. What’s important is that we make ourselves as hard a target as possible against whatever threat we face.

Patterns and trends allow us to adjust training, equipment, and policies. By considering the implications of what’s happened in the past several months, hope to make every cop — old, young and in between — thing about their own safety and survival in this profession.

The best way to beat the odds? Stay in the game all day every day, and be that 5%-er 100 percent of the time regardless of your age, gender, time on the job, or your assignment.

Stay safe.

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