Final Tour: December 2015

Summaries of December losses, & lessons & trends from 2015

By Dale Stockton  |   Jan 5, 2016
Photo Dale Stockton

A total of 129 officers were lost in 2015 according to the Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP.org). That’s four less than were lost in 2014. Of those who died last year, 50 were lost in vehicle-related incidents, 39 to gunfire, and 40 to other causes, the majority of which have been duty-related heart attacks, 9/11 related cancer or duty-related illness. Included in this “other” classification are six bomb-related deaths from a single incident detailed below.

A total of 13 officers died during December. Following is a summary of each loss from this past month, as well as information on LODD trends that every officer and trainer should review. Remember: Each of you can make a difference in officer safety, both your own and that of others.

Details on December Losses
Of the 13 officers who died during December, six were killed in a single incident due to a suicide bomber in Afghanistan and three others died in a single gunfire incident when they were murdered by a disgruntled coworker. Three were lost in vehicle-related incidents and one succumbed to a duty-related heart attack. Listed in order of occurrence, following are the summaries of those who served their final tour during this past month.

Officer Noah Leotta, 24, Montgomery County (Md.) Police Department, succumbed to injuries sustained when he was struck by a drunk driver. He was conducting a traffic stop on Rockville Pike at approximately 9:45 p.m. while working as part of a DUI task force. He had contacted the driver and was getting back into his patrol car when a second vehicle struck his patrol car and then struck him. Officer Leotta was transported to Suburban Hospital where he remained on life support until passing away a week later. The driver of the vehicle that struck him was held on suspicion of drunk driving with additional charges pending. Leotta had served with the Montgomery County Police Department for almost three years. He is survived by his parents and sister.

Officer Jesse Tarplin, 38, Metropolitan Area Rapid Transit Authority (Ga.), was killed in a motorcycle crash while escorting a funeral procession as part of an off-duty assignment at approximately 12:45 p.m. in Fulton County. The procession was leaving the funeral home when Officer Tarplin’s motorcycle struck a stopped SUV. He was transported to Grady Memorial Hospital where he succumbed to his injuries a short time later. Tarplin had served with the MARTA Transit Police Department for 11 years. He is survived by his expectant wife and five children.

Trooper Eli McCarson, 30, New Jersey State Police, was killed in a single-vehicle crash while responding to a domestic violence call. He was driving in heavy rain when he lost control of the patrol car and struck a utility pole. Trooper McCarson was taken to Memorial Hospital of Salem County, where he died from his injuries. McCarson had served with the New Jersey State Police for 10 months. He had graduated from the 155th NJSP academy class in February, 2015.

Joseph Lemm, 45, Adrianna Vorderbruggen, 36, Louis Bonocasa, 31, Chester McBride, 30, Peter Taub, 30 and Michael Cinco, 28, all members of the United States Air Force Office of Special Investigations, were killed by a suicide bomber while conducting operations near Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The bomber drove a motorcycle into the group and detonated the explosives. Agent Lemm was also a New York City PD detective. Two members of USAF Security Forces (formerly known as USAF Security Police) were wounded in the attack. (Note: Agents of the USAF OSI and other similar military positions are eligible for inclusion for listing on the Officer Down Memorial Page if they were assigned to a war zone for criminal or investigative purposes at the time of their death.)

Commander Frank Roman-Rodriguez, 49, Lieutenant Luz Soto-Segarra, 49, and Agent Rosario Hernandez de Hoyo, 42, Puerto Rico Police Department, were shot to death inside the Ponce regional headquarters by a disgruntled fellow officer who had entered the building with two guns and a knife. The subject went to the sixth floor where he took all three officers hostage. He then opened fire, murdering the three officers. Another officer exchanged gunfire with the subject, wounding him and leading to his capture.

Officer Juan Feliciano, 44, New York City Police Department, suffered a fatal heart attack after loading several department bicycles into a van and transporting them to a repair facility in Brooklyn. He was in the process of unloading the bikes when he had the heart attack. Other officers at the facility performed CPR and used an AED but were unable to revive him. He is survived by his wife and two children.

Lessons Learned During 2015

Those who have lost their lives would want us to learn from their sacrifice. We owe it to the fallen to examine every LODD so we can identify lessons that can be passed on to other officers. This is especially important for trainers and FTOs. With 2015 now behind us, here are some important observations and commentary on what occurred and what we can do to send more officers home to their families instead of to a funeral home.

Vehicle-related deaths continue to be the leading cause of death for police officers. Of the 129 LODDs that occurred in 2015, 50 of them were vehicle-related incidents. That’s one less than the number lost in 2014. When you take a look at where we were five years ago (2010), the picture is somewhat encouraging: there were 73 vehicle-related deaths in 2010. That’s almost fifty percent higher than what we experienced last year.

Despite this positive trend, this is an area where we can definitely improve officer safety. Far too many officers are lost in crashes where they are not wearing their seat belt, the most basic piece of safety equipment that we have. Sadly, we saw this happen several times during 2015. Just as troubling is that approximately half of our fatal crashes are single-vehicle with the most common cause being excessive speed, often when an officer is rushing to aid another officer or cover on a call.

Remember: You cannot help if you don’t get there. In fact, you actually make the situation worse when you crash because you pull away needed resources! Consider this maxim from the Navy SEALS: “Do not run to your death.” It’s just as applicable to law enforcement. Now is the time to have that courageous conversation with fellow officers who you know drive at speeds that are unsafe or drive without their seatbelt. Tell them that you care and that their family and department need them.

Gunfire deaths were significantly lower than what we’ve seen over the past several years despite a recent surge in unprovoked attacks. Overall, 2015 losses from hostile gunfire totaled 39. The 2015 gunfire losses are 17% lower than the losses from 2014 and that year was relatively low when viewed long term. Take a look at where we were five years ago: there were 59 deaths attributed to hostile gunfire in 2010 and that’s 50% higher than what we experienced during 2015.

However encouraging these lower numbers might be, there is no denying that today’s officers are operating in a very hostile environment and unprovoked assaults have been frequent. This is a tough time for officers everywhere and increased vigilance is warranted. Body armor should be a given for every uniformed officer, including administrators. This includes times when officers are driving a marked unit even if they’re not on patrol. Remember, the bad guys don’t know that you’re on a training day or assigned to administration. Body armor works but only if you wear it.

Line-of-duty heart attacks took the lives of 18 of our fellow officers during 2015. This is much greater than the number of officers killed in ambush shootings which tend to grab much larger headlines. The youngest heart attack LODD was only 23, another was only 26 and ten of those who fell were officers in their forties! The oldest was 55. Perhaps most troubling is that this level of loss is not an anomaly – we also lost 18 officers in 2014 to heart attacks and many of those were far too young.

These heart attack losses 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. Most officers have good health coverage and it just makes sense to get a periodic checkup. At a minimum, know your blood pressure, your cholesterol level, your body mass index and your family history—then do something about it! No one has more control over this aspect of officer safety than you. Take steps to make sure that you’re capable of doing your job effectively and of making it home to your loved ones.

Officer-Safety Basics

Improved tactics are showing benefit, but complacency can turn any situation deadly in an instant. Consider using a passenger-side approach during traffic stops and continually maintain a “contact-and-cover” style of engagement when working with other officers. Exercise caution when responding to in-progress incidents and tactically position yourself upon arrival to allow assessment before engagement whenever possible.

The ability to self- or buddy-treat gunfire wounds is making a huge difference and many officers are alive today because of a tourniquet. These devices are low cost and simple to use. Every officer should carry one, have it immediately accessible and know how to use it. Remember your safety equipment, body armor, seatbelts and reflective gear work, but only when they’re used.

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, the most successful officer safety program in the history of law enforcement.

Below 100 is not about a specific number. It’s about every person who wears a badge taking individual and collective responsibility for officer safety. We must continually challenge ourselves to learn from our losses and prevent future tragedies. Just as important: 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 an essential part of improving officer safety. Confronting a fellow officer is never easy, but it’s far better than going to their funeral.

Ask yourself this question right now: “If I had to predict where the next LODD or serious injury will come from in my agency, where would it be?” If you can answer that (and many of you already have not only a situation but a specific individual in mind), then do something about it!

Please, for the sake of your family, your department and your own life, remember the tenets of Below 100:

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

Special thanks to our ODMP partners for the LODD summary information. ODMP is now celebrating their 20thanniversary and they’ve done an outstanding job of honoring the fallen. For more information, go to www.ODMP.org. For more information on Below 100 and where you can get training, go to 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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