Police officer deaths in the line of duty on decline

By ALISON AGUDO
School of Communication
University of Miami

Around 11 a.m. on Jan. 20, 2011 Miami-Dade Police Department detectives Roger Castillo, Amanda Haworth, Diedre Beecher and Oscar Plasencia went to a Liberty City residence to serve a homicide warrant on 22-year-old Johnny Simms.

As the detectives interviewed the occupants of the home, Simms opened fire on them, shooting and fatally wounding Det. Castillo and Det. Haworth with a .40 caliber handgun. Detective Beecher sustained an injury during the shootout but survived while Detective Plasencia returned fire on Simms, killing him.

“When situations get emotionally charged and people are feeling desperate and not thinking clearly, they are more likely to shoot an officer. They may be in the mindset of ‘it’s them, or me,’” said University of Miami sociology professor and criminologist Dr. Roger Dunham.

Detective Castillo, who was just 41 years old, died at the scene. He was a 21-year veteran of the MDPD with a wife and three sons. Detective Haworth, who was 44 years old, passed away during emergency surgery at Jackson Memorial Hospital. She had been with the MDPD for 23 years and had a 13-year-old son.

According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, there are more than 900,000 sworn law enforcement officers serving in the United States. There have been nearly 19,000 law enforcement deaths since 1972, which was the year official records of officer deaths began to be recorded.

Things have been improving over the years, however, and with increased awareness, training and resources, in the 1990s law enforcement death figures dropped dramatically to an average of 160 per year compared to the 1970s, which was the deadliest decade in law enforcement history with an average of almost 229 officers killed per year.

Between the year 2000 and 2009, there have been 1,626 officers that died while on duty and 32 percent (536) of them were feloniously killed. These figures do not include the 72 officers who died in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

Nationally throughout that decade, the South saw the highest number of felonious officer deaths with 264 of the total 536 taking place across Southern states. Twenty percent (53) of those killed in the South were killed in Texas, followed by 9 percent (25) in Florida.

Between 2000 and 2009, more officers were feloniously killed on Thursday (94) than any other day of the week. The fewest number of felonious deaths occurred on Sunday (61) and 59 percent of the officers were killed in the p.m. hours, specifically between 8:01 p.m. and 10 p.m. more than during any other two-hour period.

“I can understand the larger numbers [day and time] because most violent crime is committed during those periods,” said Dr. Geoff Alpert, professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina. During the evening and weekends, individuals are out from work or school and have more free time.

Dunham concurred and added that many researchers also note higher crime during summer months but indicated the reasoning behind this pattern is still being debated.

“Some people think it’s because the weather gets hot and people are more easily agitated; others believe it’s because school is out, a lot of festivals happen during the summer, or even just people have more time on their hands,” he added.

One-third of the felonious officer deaths between 2000 and 2009 occurred during summer months (June, July and August) and the fewest number of deaths occurred in October.

While the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reports that most officer deaths are caused by auto accidents overall, when you look at felonious deaths specifically the most frequent cause of death is by firearm (91 percent) according to the Uniform Crime Report.

Three hundred and fifty seven officers were murdered in the line of duty between 2000 and 2009 by a handgun, 94 by a rifle, 38 by a shotgun and one by a type of firearm that was not reported. The second most common type of weapon reported in felonious officer deaths was a vehicle, accounting for 8 percent of the total deaths.

Large cities (more than 250,000) and metropolitan counties were the population groups that report the highest number of felonious officer deaths in the first decade of this century.  Somewhat surprisingly, cities with under 10,000 people also showed high numbers.

According to the Uniform Crime Report, 11 percent of the total number of victim officers between 2000 and 2009 were killed in the line of duty in small cities, more than medium-sized cities.

Dunham said that there has been little to no research that he is aware of on why smaller cities may have such high numbers of officer murders, however he speculated that a degree of personalization may play a role.

“In large cities, law enforcement officers have a degree of anonymity which may lead to more respect and authority when they are on the job,” he said. “In contrast, in smaller cities, you may have a police officer who went to school or grew up in the area with the residents in a closer-knit community. This may mean that some citizens feel they know the officer on a more personal level, diminishing the sense of anonymity and authority that larger city officers have the benefit of.”

In 2009, 48 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed nationwide. According to the FBI, of the 41 alleged offenders that were identified by law enforcement, 39 were male, 2 were female and 33 had prior criminal arrests. The average age of the 41 identified offenders was 32 years old and the average height was 5 feet 10 inches tall with an average weight of 181 pounds. Twenty-four of the alleged offenders were white and 17 were black.

The number of officers killed in the Midwest and South decreased between 2000 and 2009 by 62 percent and 34 percent respectively. Nationwide, the number of victim officers decreased by 5.8 percent over the decade.

“Fortunately, officers are receiving improved training and getting information about what kinds of calls are the most dangerous, such as domestic violence calls because they can quickly become very emotional,” said Dunham.

The Miami-Dade Police Department agreed, but commented only to say that there are “obvious ways to prevent officer’s deaths in the line of duty including things such as additional training, awareness and public consciousness.”

Implementing stricter policies for safety issues when on duty and increasing back up and supervision are also potential ways to create a safer environment for individuals in the line of duty. According to National Public Radio, in the fall of 2010 the Justice Department launched a grant program intended to train police to “anticipate and survive a violent attack.” The Justice Department is in the process of attempting to have Congress expand the program in 2012.

“Training to deal with routine as well as high-risk calls is always important,” said Alpert.

When an officer is assigned to a call, there is typically little guarantee of how the situation will unfold until he or she is in the moment so finding a way to ensure even the most seemingly innocent calls remain as safe as possible is crucial to overall preparedness of officers.

Recently released data from the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Fund for 2011 reports that so far this year there have been a total of 53 officer fatalities. Twenty-four were a result of gunfire, 16 were traffic incidents and 13 have been attributed to other causes. Florida has seen 10 officer fatalities so far this year, ranking it number one in the country, followed by New York with six fatalities and Ohio with five.

According to a recent report by NPR, Justice Department leaders held a meeting in Washington last month to discuss what was described as an “alarming increase in the number of law enforcement officers dying in the line of duty.”

It is anticipated that with an increased push from the government to expand awareness and training, officers in the line of duty will ultimately feel the effect and avoid such high numbers of fatal situations in the future.

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