Experts look for clues to increasing number of law enforcement fatalities
In 2011, a slow and steady rise in the number of law enforcement officers killed on the job capped out with 177 officers being killed on the job, by suspect's gunfire, in traffic accidents and in other ways. That's despite a steady decline in violent crime. Now officials are trying to figure out why -- and why 2012 is shaping up differently.
Although violent crime has decreased across the country, for police officers, the numbers tell a different story.
According to statistics compiled by the FBI, the number of police officers killed in 2011 was up by 25 percent from 2010 — and up by 75 percent from 2008. All told, 72 officers were killed by criminals in 2011. A total of 177 officers died in some manor while on the job. For the first time, last year more officers were killed by firearms than in car accidents.
"Policing is, by its very nature, a dangerous profession," said former Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton. "What is ironic is as crime has gone dramatically in the United States for almost a full generation, we've got this aberration of a significant increase in officer deaths, and particularly officer deaths as a result of gunfire."
Bratton said the reality is it will never be a violence-free world. There will always be officier injuries and even officer deaths,
"It's motivation to do all we can to improve the training of officers, the frequency of it, as well as punish severely those who would threaten them, harm them, kill them. Society has that obligation to its officers," he said.
Why are more officers losing their lives on the job? Maria Haberfeld, chairwoman of the Department of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice was part of an FBI-commissioned study that looked at a subset of last year's data to try and gather more information.
"We're looking at a limited time-frame, a limited timeline. Of course it's a matter of concern for us," she said.
Haberfeld said while it's hard to pinpoint any one factor, there are some trends that begin to emerge.
Among the findings were that more and better training is needed, as Bratoon said.
But to make conclusive findings, Haberfeld said, we'd need more data over a longer period of time.
"It's just too early to say," she explained.
Another oft-cited factor is the recession — both because it may increase the desperation of criminals and it may force police to work with fewer officer, increasing risks. Haberfeld found that two themes dominated the cases her group reviewed last year: mental health issues and violent crime recidivism.
"This is not necessarily related to the recession," she said. "But we did find in the majority of cases the officers who were killed were by themselves. This is a trend around the country of sending officers by themselves and ignoring the fact there is strength in numbers. We're not going to see much of a change, given the recession."
As far as mental health, though, she said the review found that departments spend relatively little time training officers on how to deal with emotionally disturbed people — the sort of training that could help when dealing with someone who has a mental illness.
"This is something that is definitely going to suffer during the recession, because the first thing that's usually cut by police departments is money for training," Haberfeld said.
Perhaps indicative of just how hard it is to know whether 2011 was a one-time fluke or a significant sign, line-of-duty deaths for police officers have fallen dramatically in 2012. So far, as of April 11, 31 law enforcement officers have been killed in 2012, down from 59 at the same time in 2011. Firearms accounted for 11 of those deaths while traffic accidents accounted for 12.
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