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Car Accidents: The new, disturbing trend in law enforcement

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Every January, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund releases a report listing the names of every federal, state and local law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty during the previous year. It is always a sad occasion, and particularly so for the families and friends of the men and women who have died. But this year we were also able to report a glimmer of good news. In 2004, for the third year in a row, our tally of 154 deaths was well below the decade-long average of 164 annual fatalities. While our greatest wish at the dawning of this new year is that the number of fatalities will continue to decline, we know that it will take much more than wishes alone to spare the lives of the law enforcement representatives who protect the safety of the public all year long.

To understand how to better protect our law enforcement personnel, we must first examine the circumstances surrounding those who have been killed in the line of duty. Preliminary data shows that there were two primary causes of death this past year. Fifty-seven of the officers were shot to death, and 51 died in automobile accidents.

At first glance, the number of officers shot to death (57) would appear to be the most troubling statistic, since shootings were the number one cause of death. But, in relative terms, this number actually reflects a very favorable trend in law enforcement safety. While it is true that more than half of all law enforcement fatalities throughout history have been the result of shootings, the number of officers killed by firearms has dropped by 36 percent over the past three decades. There are a number of reasons contributing to this dramatic dip in officers killed by firearms, including better training and equipment; especially the increased use of bullet resistant vests, and less-lethal weapons-like Taser stun guns-to help subdue criminal suspects resisting arrest. Tougher criminal justice has also helped because repeat violent offenders stay behind bars for longer periods of time. As a result, the public is safer, and so are the police.

There is a more disturbing trend hidden in these numbers, though. Many more officers than ever before are dying in car accidents. Consider, for example, that while shooting deaths have declined by 36 percent over the past three decades, the number of officers killed in automobile accidents during that same period has risen by 40 percent. Between 1975 and 1984, there were 339 officers killed in auto accidents, compared to 476 who died behind the wheel in the most recent 10-year period (1995-2004).

Better driver training for law enforcement personnel is an essential component to stemming this dangerous trend. A study several years ago showed that some law enforcement agencies were providing no high speed driver training for their officers, while still others were providing only a bare minimum. Policies governing high speed pursuits have received careful scrutiny in recent years and further reflection is necessary to determine when it is appropriate for officers to chase after fleeing automobiles, and what less dangerous options might exist.

Safer automobiles will also make an important difference. Fire prevention products and equipment in law enforcement vehicles need to be used more to reduce the risk of fires caused by a crash. Improved safety restraint systems that are both practical and effective should also be considered so that officers are given maximum protection in the event of an accident.

Stepped-up measures in each of these areas can go a long way toward reducing deaths and injuries among the men and women who protect our communities. Ultimately, though, it will be up to the practitioners, the trainers and the policy-makers to determine the best ways to improve law enforcement safety. In the meantime, we must do all that we can to honor and remember the officers who made the ultimate sacrifice and their families.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund would like to encourage anyone who would like to leave a message of condolence for the families and friends of those killed in the line of duty in 2004 to do so at www.nleomf.com. Kind and supportive words for those in need are a very fitting way to begin the new year. They also send a clear message that we highly value and always remember the extraordinary service and sacrifice of our nation's law enforcement heroes.

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