They have procedures they must follow and rules they are supposed to abide by whether directing traffic or investigating a homicide. Most of these rules are written down or codified in state law. There is one unwritten rule, however, that every police officer knows: “Make sure you go home at the end of your shift.”
Not every officer is able to comply with that rule.
Last year, according to statistics from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 177 federal, state and local law enforcement officers lost their lives in the line of duty – a 16 percent increase over 2010.
Although fatal shootings of police officers have been on a steady decline since the 1970s, each of the past three years has shown an increase, and preliminary data from 2011 seem to show the trend continuing, according to Robert Kominski, an associate professor at the Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina.
The most troubling trend, Kominski said, appears to be an increase in unprovoked, or “ambush,” killings such as the Oct. 23 attack that took the life of Richmond County sheriff’s Deputy J.D. Paugh. Christopher Hodges, a Tennessee National Guardsman, cut down Paugh with a hail of bullets fired from his M-4 rifle. Hodges then killed himself.
Such attacks have prompted the U.S. Justice Department to create a program, Preventing Violence Against Law Enforcement and Ensuring Officer Resilience and Survivability.
The program provides instruction and training to police officers, intended to help them better recognize and avoid deadly attacks before they occur, and provides strategies for surviving violent encounters, according to the program’s Web site.
Training sessions have been taking place around the nation, according to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
“I am proud to report that, to date, more than 1,700 law enforcement professionals have received VALOR training, in 10 regional sessions across the country,” Holder said in a Jan. 26 speech to the National Officer Safety and Wellness Group Meeting in Washington, D.C. “We’ve heard from sheriffs and police chiefs that this curriculum has been successfully put to use in the field.
“And some officers have described it as a ‘wake-up call,’ both professional and relevant, and even the best training they have ever had the opportunity to experience.”
Nearly 500 South Carolina officers converged on Columbia for sessions Wednesday and Thursday. Among those were groups from the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office and the Aiken Department of Public Safety, which lost two officers to gunfire in recent weeks.
Aiken Public Safety Director Charles Barranco took part in opening ceremonies Wednesday that honored three South Carolina officers who died in the line of duty, including Master Public Safety Officer Scotty Richardson and Master Cpl. Sandra Rogers.
One of the foundations for the training lies in the concept of making officers more aware of the “deadly mix” of the police officer, the offender and the situation that brings them together – each a unique combination that can result in the death of an officer, said Edward F. Davis, of E.F. Consultant, one of the lecturers in Columbia.
Davis, a former Washington, D.C., police officer and a retired FBI agent, and his partner, Anthony J. Pinizzotto, developed the “deadly mix” concept when they worked in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in the 1990s.
The men interviewed officers who survived attacks and offenders who killed officers in order to better understand what happened in these situations.
“It’s a different way of looking at it,” Davis said.
Davis said that in the past the focus was often on what an officer did wrong or where he made a fatal mistake. He said mistakes don’t always matter. Police officers make mistakes all the time but don’t get killed. Officers also die when they do everything by the book.
“You can do everything you have been trained to do and still lose your life,” Davis said.
Instead, he said at each encounter there is an interplay between the officer and the offender, and usually it is the offender who is reading the officer, looking for a way to take advantage of the situation.
“The most important aspect in any situation is assessing the threat posed by a suspect or other individual an officer may encounter,” Davis said.
Constant vigilance is needed on the part of officers. No matter who officers are interacting with, they should be constantly assessing and reassessing the situation to maintain their ability to defend themselves, he said.
“There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop,” Davis said.