Final Tour: September, 2015

A summary of recent line-of-duty deaths and what can be done

By Dale Stockton  |   Oct 1, 2015
Photo Dale Stockton

Now, nine months into 2015, we have suffered 98 line-of-duty deaths. Of those, 39 have been lost in vehicle-related incidents, 29 to gunfire, and 30 to other causes, the majority of which have been duty-related heart attacks or illness. We’re slightly ahead (2%) of where we were at this time last year.

The summary of September losses will be followed by must-know information on LODD trends and what you can do to make a difference. Simple changes can save lives.

Details on September Losses
September was an especially deadly month for law enforcement, with a total of 15 officers lost. Only March (16) and May (17) have been worse. Of those lost in September, six officers were killed by assailant gunfire, four died in vehicle crashes, two died from duty-related heart attacks, two succumbed to 9/11-related injuries, and one died as the result of a heat-related illness.

Listed in order of occurrence, following are the summaries of those who served their final tour during this past month.

Lt. Joe Gliniewicz, 51, Fox Lake (Ill.) PD, was shot and killed after reporting he was stopping to investigate three suspicious male subjects. He then radioed that he was in a foot pursuit and when backup officers arrived they found he had been mortally wounded. Despite a massive and ongoing investigation, no suspects have been arrested. Lt. Gliniewicz served with the Fox Lake Police Department for 32 years and is survived by his wife and four sons.

Sergeant Miguel Perez-Rios, 35, Puerto Rico PD, was shot and killed in an ambush during an off-duty assignment at a gas station in Caimito. He was approached by three masked individuals who fired approximately 40 rounds, continuing to shoot after he fell to the ground. Perez-Rios had received death threats from an individual he had arrested several times and it’s believed he was murdered in retaliation for those arrests. Several subjects have been taken into custody. Perez-Rios had served for 13 years and was posthumously promoted to the rank of sergeant. He is survived by his expectant wife and three children.

Lt. Roy McLaughlin, 38, Yonkers (N.Y.) PD, passed away as the result of cancer that he developed following his assignment to aid in the search and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center site following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. McLaughlin had served with the Yonkers Police Department for 17 years. He is survived by his wife and four children. All three of his brothers and his father served with the Yonkers Police Department.

Deputy Chief John McKee, 49, City University of New York Department of Public Safety, died as the result of cancer he developed following his assignment to assist with search and rescue efforts at the World Trade Center site immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Following the attacks, Chief McKee spent over one month at Ground Zero, coordinating the allocation of his agency’s resources and personnel. He later fell ill as a result of his exposure to the toxic materials in the area. Chief McKee had served for 18 years and he was second-in-command of the agency. He is survived by his wife.

Trooper Joseph Ponder, 31, Kentucky State Police, was shot and killed after conducting a vehicle stop on I-24, near Lamasco, at approximately 10:20 p.m. Ponder was on patrol when he observed a vehicle commit a traffic violation. The vehicle fled and a nine-mile pursuit ensued. During the chase, the driver abruptly stopped his vehicle, causing Ponder to crash into it. The man then exited his vehicle and opened fire, killing the trooper. The subject fled the scene on foot but was located in a wooded area several hours later by members of the Kentucky State Police ERT. He was shot and killed when he pointed his weapon at the officers. Ponder was a U.S. Navy veteran and had served with the Kentucky State Police for nine months. He is survived by his fiancée.

Deputy Steven “Brett” Hawkins, 34, Harrison County (Mo.) Sheriff’s Office, suffered a fatal heart attack following an emergency response to a call involving a frantic subject. A subsequent search involved a house and large surrounding area. He suffered the heart attack several hours later. Deputy Hawkins had served with the Harrison County Sheriff’s Office for three years. He had previously served with the Bethany Police Department and Clinton County Sheriff’s Office. He is survived by his wife, daughter and three sons.

Deputy Dwight Maness, 47, McHenry County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Office, succumbed to gunshot wounds sustained 11 months earlier when he responded to a domestic disturbance at a home in Holiday Hills. He and two other deputies had gone to a home after a friend of the subject’s wife called to request a welfare check. The subject answered the door and stated he did not need any assistance. He invited the deputies into the home and then immediately opened fire with an AR-15 rifle. Maness and one of the other deputies were shot multiple times as they retreated for cover. A third deputy returned fire as an Island Lake PD officer pulled Maness to safety. The subject who shot the deputies was arrested several hours later. He was subsequently convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 135 years in prison. Maness was confined to a wheelchair and underwent multiple surgeries. He passed away after suffering a pulmonary embolism during a rehab session. He is survived by his wife, two sons and stepchildren.

Deputy Richard Hall, 45, Chatham County (Ga.) Sheriff’s Office, was killed in a vehicle crash on Highway 280 Bryan County, at approximately 5:15 p.m. Hall was headed home after work and attempted to make a U-turn. His department vehicle was struck by an oncoming pickup truck. The driver of the other vehicle suffered minor injuries. Hall had served with the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office for 14 years.

Sergeant Eric Meier, 51, Crawford (N.Y.) PD, suffered a fatal heart attack while searching for a marijuana grow operation in a remote and rugged area. The officer with Meier requested medical assistance when he began to fall ill. Meier was brought out of the remote area and transported to a medical center where he was pronounced dead. Meier had served for 25 years and is survived by his wife and two sons.

Trooper Kyle Young, 28, Vermont State Police, suffered a fatal medical emergency while trying out for the agency’s tactical team at the Ethan Allen Firing Range, in Jericho. The preliminary cause of death was listed as “exertional heatstroke” and the manner of death was classified as an accident by the medical examiner. The temperature was in the mid-80s during the testing. A complete review and investigation is underway. Young had served with the Vermont State Police for 21 months and is survived by his two daughters.

Officer Kevin Toatley, 35, Dekalb County (Ga.) PD  was killed when his patrol car was struck head-on by the driver of a vehicle traveling in the wrong direction on the South Fulton Parkway at approximately 12:30 am. His patrol car burst into flames following the crash. The five occupants of the other vehicle, including three children, were injured in the crash. Toatley had served with the PD for seven years. He was the second Dekalb officer to die recently. Last month, Dekalb County PD Officer Ivorie Klusmann, who had been on 10 months, died in a single-vehicle crash. 

Trooper Nathan-Michael Smith, 27, Virginia State Police, was killed in a single-vehicle crash at approximately 7:10 am while responding to assist another trooper whom he believed to be in distress at an accident scene in Dinwiddie County. He was exiting I-295 south onto I-95 north, in Prince George County, when his patrol car left the roadway, overturned, and struck several trees. He was extricated from the vehicle and flown to a local hospital where he succumbed to his injuries. The call he was responding to was dispatched as CPR being performed on another trooper. It was later determined that the trooper was performing CPR on a civilian crash victim.
Smith had served for 15 months and is survived by his wife and two children.

Deputy Bill Myers, 64, Okaloosa County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office, was shot and killed while serving a domestic violence injunction at a local attorney’s office in Shalimar, at approximately 8:20 a.m. He had served the papers on the subject and was leaving the office when the man opened fire from behind, striking Myers multiple times in the back and the back of the head. The man fled to a local hotel where he barricaded himself in a room for approximately 90 minutes. He was shot and killed by members of the agency’s Special Response Team after exiting the room displaying a firearm. Myers had retired after 25 years of service and returned as a part-time deputy in January, 2015 to serve civil papers.

Deputy Rosemary Vela, 24, Madison County (Tenn.) Sheriff’s Office, was killed in a single-vehicle crash while responding to assist another deputy at approximately 2:00 am. She was traveling on Highway 70 West, near Huntersville, when her patrol car left the roadway during a period of heavy rain. The vehicle struck a tree and then came to rest in a creek. Vela had served with the Madison County Sheriff’s Office for five months and had previously served with the Alama Police Department and Crockett County Sheriff’s Office. She is survived by her five-year-old son.

Officer Greg Alia, 32, Forest Acres (S.C.) PD, was shot and killed when he and another officer responded to a suspicious person call at the Richland Mall shortly before 9:00 a.m. A struggle ensued as the officers spoke to the subject. The man then produced a handgun and shot Alia before being taken into custody by other officers. Alia had served with the Forest Acres Police Department for seven years. He is survived by his wife and newborn son.

Lessons Learned

It is critical that every LODD be reviewed by trainers, especially FTOs, so that the information can be shared with other officers. The best way to honor the fallen is by training the living and those who have paid with their lives would want us to ensure we prevent further loss. With nine months now behind us, here are some important observations on the trends we’re seeing this year.

Vehicle-related deaths continue to be the leading cause of death. So far this year thirty-nine officers have died in vehicle-related incidents (three of these were motor officers and one was on an ATV). That’s an increase (12%) over this same time last year and significantly greater than our losses due to gunfire. This is an area where we can definitely improve.

We lose far too many officers to single-vehicle crashes where speed is the primary collision factor. Sadly, three of the four vehicle-related deaths this past month were single-vehicle crashes. 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.

The most common element in single-vehicle crashes is an officer rushing to aid another officer or cover on a call. Remember: you can’t help if you don’t get there and you actually make the situation worse if you crash because you pull away needed resources!

We’re also continuing to see deaths that could absolutely have been prevented if only a seatbelt—the most basic piece of safety equipment—had been used. It’s time to have that courageous conversation with those who drive too fast or fail to use their safety equipment. Seatbelts should be a given, speed awareness is critical and officers need to wear reflective gear when investigating roadway incidents or directing traffic.

Gunfire deaths remain significantly lower than what we’ve seen over the past several years despite a recent surge in unprovoked attacks. Overall, losses from gunfire are down 17% compared to this same time last year and last year was relatively low when viewed long term. However, assaults remain frequent and there has been a slight increase in ambush-style attacks. Hostility towards law enforcement remains high and vigilance should be the watchword. For further discussion of ambush attacks and what officers need to consider, click here.

Line-of-duty heart attacks have now taken 16 of our fellow officers during 2015. This is more than twice the number of officers killed in ambush shootings this year. 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 great concern to all—heart attacks have consistently been the third-leading cause of death for police officers.

It’s time to acknowledge this reality 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! This is another area where a courageous conversation can make a difference. It’s a tough one but could save a life.

Officer-Safety Basics

Body armor and seatbelts work, but only when they’re worn. Improved tactics are showing benefit but complacency can turn any situation deadly in an instant. This holds true for even the most basic tasks like directing traffic, range training or searching the back seat of a patrol car for contraband.  Officers should consider using a passenger-side approach during traffic stops and continually maintain a “contact and cover” approach when working with other officers. The ability to self- or buddy-treat gunfire wounds is making a huge difference and many officers are alive today because of a tourniquet. Every officer should carry one, have it immediately accessible and know how to use it.

Below 100

None of those lost during 2015 believed 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 cornerstone 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.
  • W.I.N. – 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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