Final Tour: August 2015

An overview of recent line-of-duty deaths and what can be done

By Dale Stockton  |   Sep 1, 2015
Photo Dale Stockton
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As August comes to a close, we have suffered 82 line-of-duty police deaths thus far in 2015. Of those, 35 have been lost in vehicle-related incidents, 23 to gunfire and 24 to other causes, the majority of which have been duty-related heart attacks or illness. We’re slightly lower (2%) than the same time last year but that won’t ease the pain of those who have lost a loved one.

Details on August Losses
August was a deadly month for law enforcement, with a total of 14 officers lost. Six officers were killed by assailant gunfire, five died in vehicle related incidents, two died from duty-related heart attacks and one died in an aircraft crash. Listed in order of occurrence, following are the summaries of those who served their final tour during this past month.

Deputy Delton Daniels, 22, Marlboro County (S.C.) Sheriff’s Office, died as the result of injuries suffered 11 days prior when the patrol SUV in which he was a passenger left the roadway during a period of heavy rain and overturned. He had been with the department for one week when the crash occurred.

Officer Sean Bolton, 33, Memphis (Tenn.) PD, was shot and killed when he interrupted a drug deal at approximately 9:15 pm. Officer Bolton noticed an illegally parked vehicle occupied by multiple people and, as he approached, he was shot several times by one of the occupants who fled the scene. A citizen used Officer Bolton’s radio to call for help. The suspect later turned himself in.

Officer Thomas LaValley, 29, Shreveport (La.) PD, was shot and killed when he and several other officers responded to a domestic violence call involving a man threatening family members with a gun. Upon arrival at the home, the subject opened fire, striking Officer LaValley multiple times. The subject fled the scene but was apprehended the following day. He was also wanted for a previous shooting.

Detective Brent Hanger, 47, Washington State Patrol, suffered a fatal heart attack while hiking into a remote area of Chinook Pass to investigate reports of a marijuana growing operation. When he began to suffer chest pains and shortness of breath, other detectives called for assistance and started CPR after he collapsed. They were unable to revive him.

Lt. Arthur Green, 58, Michigan Dep’t of Natural Resources, was killed in an airplane crash in Harbor Springs while on his way to mandatory in-service training. The Piper Cherokee he was piloting struck a large tree while on final approach shortly after 11 pm. The wreckage was located the following morning. Lt. Green had served with the department for 19 years and had retired from Detroit PD after 20 years of service.

Deputy Craig Whisenand, 44, Tazewell County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Office, died in a single vehicle crash while responding to a domestic violence call in Armington at approximately 10:30 pm. Dispatch lost contact with him and another deputy located him just before midnight. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Deputy Carl Howell, Carson City (Nev.) Sheriff’s Office, was shot and killed after responding to a domestic battery call at approximately 2:20 am. The first deputies to arrive located an injured woman in front of the home. As they evaluated her injuries, Deputy Howell approached the home. The subject shot Deputy Howell at the front door, mortally wounding him. Despite the wound, Deputy Howell was able to return fire and kill the subject.

Detention Officer Tronoski Jones, 26, Harris County (Texas), suffered a fatal heart attack while dealing with a combative inmate shortly after 4:00 am. The inmate was being moved from a recreational area to a cell when he began to argue. OC spray was deployed when he became non-compliant. Officer Jones collapsed during the incident and passed away a short time later.

Trooper Steven Vincent, 43, Louisiana State Police, was shot and killed while checking on a suspected intoxicated driver near Bell City. He spotted a vehicle that had been the subject of a previous reckless driving report. The vehicle had driven off the road and was stuck in a ditch. Trooper Vincent approached the vehicle and began speaking with the occupant, then ordered him to exit the vehicle. The subject exited with a sawed off shotgun in his hand and opened fire, striking Trooper Vincent in the head. As Trooper Vincent lay on the ground, the subject taunted him. Citizens stopped to assist and one wrestled the shotgun away from the subject while others used the trooper’s handcuffs to take him into custody. They called for assistance but Trooper Vincent died the following day.

Sergeant Peggy Vassallo, 53, Bellefontaine Neighbors (Mo.) PD, was on her way to work when she was involved in a vehicle crash in St. Louis County. The other driver complained of neck pain and Sergeant Vassallo, who was in full uniform, contacted dispatch. As she was getting assistance, another vehicle swerved around Sergeant Vassallo’s car and struck her, causing critical injuries. She was transported but died several hours later.

Officer Henry Nelson, 51, Sunset (La.) PD, was shot and killed approximately 3:00 pm while responding to a domestic disturbance call where three women had been stabbed by a male subject. When Officer Nelson arrived, the subject opened fire, striking Officer Nelson. The subject fled the scene and barricaded himself in a nearby gas station for several hours. He was apprehended after a SWAT team made entry to the station. Officer Nelson was airlifted to the hospital where he succumbed to his wounds. One of the stabbing victims also died.

Trooper James Bava, 25, Missouri State Patrol, was killed in a single vehicle crash in Audrain County shortly before 8:30 am. He had radioed that he would be trying to stop a motorcycle for a violation. Approximately 8:35 am, the communication center received a call of a crash with Trooper Bava involved. Investigation revealed his car had veered off the left side of the roadway, struck several trees and overturned before catching fire.

Trooper Chad Wolf, 38, Michigan State Police, was killed when his motorcycle was struck by another vehicle. A vehicle towing an empty trailer made a sudden lane change in order to access an entrance ramp. As the vehicle changed lanes it struck Trooper Wolf and he was trapped underneath the trailer. He was dragged for several miles until the vehicle stopped at a rest stop and other people saw the trooper. Trooper Wolf later died in the hospital surrounded by fellow officers.

Deputy Darren Goforth, 47, Harris County (Texas) Sheriff’s Office, was shot and killed while pumping gas into his patrol car at a commercial gas station in Cypress. Deputy Goforth had completed an assignment regarding a vehicle collision and went to local gas station to refuel. As Deputy Goforth stood next to his patrol car, a male subject walked up behind him and fired several rounds from a handgun. After Deputy Goforth fell to the ground, the subject shot him several more times before fleeing in a pickup truck. The subject was apprehended the following day following a massive manhunt.

Lessons Learned

Every LODD should be reviewed by trainers, especially FTOs, and information gleaned should be shared with others and at briefing. We must honor the fallen by training the living. They would want nothing less from us. With eight months now behind us, here are some observations on the trends we’re seeing this year.

Vehicle-related deaths continue to be the leading cause of death, dramatically outpacing deaths by gunfire. So far this year 35 officers have died in vehicle-related incidents (three of these were motor officers and one was on an ATV). That’s approximately 50% greater than our losses due to gunfire. This is an area where we can definitely improve and it’s time for everyone who wears a badge to take substantive steps to increase officer safety through improved vehicle safety.

Seatbelts should be a given, speed awareness is critical, and officers need to wear reflective gear when investigating roadway incidents or directing traffic. We lose far too many officers to single vehicle crashes where speed is the primary collision factor.

Sadly, three officers were killed in single vehicle crashes this month. These events do not make the headlines like an ambush slaying, but they are just as deadly, far more prevalent, and an area that we can absolutely change.

Despite a recent spike in unprovoked attacks, gunfire deaths remain significantly lower than what we’ve seen over the past several years.

Overall, losses from gunfire are down 21% compared to this same time last year and last year was relatively low when viewed long term. Remarkably, three months of this year (January, February and April) saw no deaths due to assailant gunfire. However, assaults remain frequent and there has been a recent increase in ambush-style attacks. There is little doubt that the level of hostility to law enforcement remains high. It is definitely a time for vigilance.

For further discussion of ambush attacks and what officers need to consider, read this.

Line-of-duty heart attacks have now taken 13 of our fellow officers during 2015. The youngest was only 23, another was only 26 and eight of the fallen officers were in their 40s. The oldest thus far has been 55.

This deadly trend should be of concern to all—heart attacks have consistently been the third leading cause of death for police officers. It’s time to acknowledge this deadly trend and to become proactive. No one has more control over your health than you. At a minimum, know your blood pressure, your cholesterol level, your body mass index and your family history—then do something about it!

Officer-Safety Basics

Body armor works, but only when it is worn. Improved tactics are paying off but complacency can turn any situation deadly in an instant. Officers should consider using a passenger-side approach during traffic stops and continually maintain a “contact and cover” approach when working with another officer. The ability to self- or buddy-treat gunfire wounds is making a huge difference. Every officer should carry a tourniquet and know how to use it.

Below 100

None of the officers who lost their lives during 2015 thought their final tour of duty would take their life. For many, their deaths could easily have been prevented. It is clear that we can dramatically improve officer safety by simply exercising common sense. That’s the operational principle of Below 100.

Below 100 is not about a specific number. It’s about each of us taking individual and collective responsibility for officer safety. We must continually challenge ourselves to learn from our losses and prevent future tragedies. And we must have the courage to speak up and engage other officers when their actions are putting themselves or others at risk. Courageous conversations with those who take unnecessary chances are key to improving officer safety. Confronting a fellow officer is never easy but it’s far better than going to their funeral.

Remember the tenets of Below 100:

  • Wear your seatbelt.
  • Wear your vest.
  • Watch your speed.
  • WIN – What’s Important Now?
  • Remember: Complacency Kills!

Special thanks to the Officer Down Memorial Page for their assistance. For more information on Below 100, check out www.Below100.org.

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Dale Stockton
Dale Stockton is the former editor in chief of Law Officer magazine, and a 32-year-veteran of law enforcement. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, the California Supervisory Leadership Institute, the FBI Southwest Command College and holds a graduate degree from the University of California School of Criminology, Law and Society. He has served as a Commissioner for California POST, the agency responsible for all California policing standards. Stockton has been nationally recognized as the most widely published public safety photographer and writer in the country and taught college level criminal justice classes for 20 years. He has presented nationally at conferences in partnership with the National Institute of Justice and International Association of Chiefs of Police. Stockton is a founder, core instructor and current board member of Below 100. You can follow him on Twitter @DaleStockton.
Dale Stockton

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