Final Tour: March 2016

In all, 16 officers were lost this month--more than January & February combined

By Dale Stockton  |   Apr 1, 2016
Photo Dale Stockton

Sixteen officers died during March, a dramatic jump that exceeds the loss during the previous two months of 2016. Ironically, we also lost 16 officers during March of 2015 and 2014. Of the officers lost last month, ten were the result of vehicle-related incidents, four were killed by felonious gunfire, one by accidental gunfire and one succumbed to a heart attack.

As we close out the first quarter of 2016, we have lost a total of 30 officers – a terrible number but one that is roughly in line with this time last year (31). So far in 2016, deaths attributable to felonious gunfire number 15, a level that is 150% above this same time last year. Vehicle-related losses in 2016 now stand at 12, which is 8% below the same time last year. In addition to these losses, 2016 has seen one officer perish in an aircraft crash, one succumb to a heart attack and one killed by accidental (friendly) gunfire.

The written word can never adequately convey the horrible tragedy of any line-of-duty death. The 16 officers we lost last month, ranging in age from 27 to 50, each had hopes and dreams and loved ones who will miss them terribly. On behalf of everyone at Calibre Press, I extend the deepest condolences to those who have lost an officer. Listed in order of occurrence, here are summaries of our losses for March:

Deputy Travis Russell, 44, Las Animas County (Colo.) Sheriff’s Office, was killed when his patrol SUV crashed in the town of Trinidad. Investigators reported Deputy Russell drove across opposing traffic lanes and struck a parked, unoccupied SUV. His vehicle rolled onto its passenger side. He was taken to Mount San Rafael Hospital where he died. The Las Animas County Coroner is investigating the case to make a final determination on cause of death.

Officer David Stefa Hofer, 29, Euless (Texas) Police Department, was shot and killed after he and his partner responded to a report of suspicious activity at a park at approximately 2:45 p.m. As the officers approached the park, they were fired on by a subject. Officer Hofer was shot and mortally wounded. His partner was able to return fire, killing the man. Officer Hofer had served with the Euless Police Department for two years and previously served with the NYPD for five years.

Officer Scot Fitzgerald, 32, South Jacksonville (Ill.) Police Department, died as the result of a crash when his patrol car and an ambulance collided while responding to a medical call shortly before 9:00 p.m. The ambulance was driving behind Officer Fitzgerald’s patrol unit as they were trying to locate the address for the call. Officer Fitzgerald pulled to the right shoulder and then attempted to make a U-turn, pulling in front of the oncoming ambulance. He and the three EMTs in the ambulance were transported to area hospitals. Officer Fitzgerald succumbed to his injuries.  Officer Fitzgerald had served with the South Jacksonville Police Department for 17 months. He leaves behind his wife and two young children, a 4-year-old boy and a 4-month-old girl.

Trooper Sean E. Cullen, 31, New Jersey State Police, was struck and killed by a vehicle while assisting at the scene of a vehicle fire. Trooper Cullen had responded to a vehicle fire with injuries that occurred near milepost 23 on the southbound lanes of I-295 in Deptford Township. He was outside of his cruiser and walking near the scene of the fire when he was struck by a passing vehicle. Trooper Cullen was transported to Cooper University Hospital, in Camden, where he died from his injuries. The driver of the vehicle who struck Trooper Cullen remained at the scene. Trooper Cullen had served with the New Jersey State Police for 18 months and had previously served with the Westampton Township Police Department. He is survived by his 9-month-old son and fiancé.

Deputy John Kotfila, 30, Hillsborough County, (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office, was killed in a head-on collision with a vehicle that was driving the wrong direction on the Selmon Expressway, at the Brandon Express exit near I-75, at approximately 3:00 a.m. He was returning to the station after investigating an unrelated traffic accident when a drunk driver entered the expressway heading west in the eastbound lanes, causing a head-on collision. The drunk driver died at the scene. Deputy Kotfila was transported to Tampa General Hospital where he later died. Deputy Kotfila had served with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office for six years. He is survived by his parents, sister, and two brothers. His father, one brother, and both of his grandfathers served in law enforcement in Massachusetts.

Officer Nathan Taylor, 35, California Highway Patrol, succumbed to injuries sustained the previous day when he was struck by a vehicle on I-80, near Donnor Summit. He was directing traffic at the scene of a previous accident when a vehicle suddenly changed lanes and accelerated past slowing traffic. The vehicle struck Officer Taylor, causing him to be thrown into the median. He suffered two broken legs and internal injuries. He was transported to a local hospital where he succumbed to his injuries the following day. Officer Taylor had served with the CHP for six years. He is survived by his wife and three sons. One of his brothers also serves with the CHP.

Officer Jacai D. Colson, 28, Prince George’s County (Md.) Police Department, was shot and killed while responding to a reported active shooter at the Prince George’s County Police Department’s District III police station. At approximately 4:30 p.m., two brothers drove to the police station where one of them opened fire as the other filmed the incident. The subject with the gun shot at the police station, an ambulance, and passing cars before being engaged by responding officers. Officer Colson, who was in plainclothes, also responded to the scene and engaged the subject. Officer Colson was inadvertently struck by a round fired by another officer. He was transported to a local hospital where he succumbed to the wound. The subject who had been firing the gun and his brother were taken into custody. Officer Colson had served with PGPD for four years and was assigned to the narcotics division.

Officer David Ortiz, 45, El Paso (Texas) Police Department, succumbed to injuries sustained four days earlier when his police motorcycle was struck from behind at an intersection. The impact pushed his motorcycle into the vehicle in front of him. Officer Ortiz was trapped in the wreckage but he was pulled out and transported to a local hospital where he later succumbed to his injuries. The crash was initially believed to be an accident but further investigation resulted in the arrest of the driver of the vehicle that struck Officer Ortiz. Evidence indicates that he intentionally changed his direction of travel and drove directly into the motor officer. The subject has been charged with capital murder for his actions. Officer Ortiz had served with the El Paso Police Department for nine years.

First Sergeant Joseph Portaro, 50, West Virginia State Police, suffered a medical emergency while participating in a physical fitness run near the West Virginia State Police Academy where he served as the Deputy Director of Training. He was transported to Thomas Memorial Hospital where he passed away. Sergeant Portaro had served with the West Virginia State Police for 17 years. He is survived by his wife and three children.

Trooper Thomas Clardy, 44, Massachusetts State Police, died from injuries he sustained in a vehicle collision on I-90, near mile marker 80 in Charlton, at approximately 12:00 p.m. He was working an overtime assignment conducting accident reduction enforcement when he made a traffic stop. He had returned to his patrol car when another vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed drove across three lanes and struck him from behind. Trooper Clardy was transported to a local hospital where he died from his injuries. The driver of the vehicle who struck the patrol car has been charged with negligent operation of a motor vehicle and a marked lanes violation.
Trooper Clardy served with the Massachusetts State Police for 10 years and was a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He is survived by his wife and six children.

Officer Allen Lee Jacobs, 28, Greenville (S.C.) Police Department, was shot multiple times as he and other members of a community response team tried to interview a known gang member in the Nicholtown neighborhood. The subject fled when he saw the officers and a foot pursuit followed. The subject ran into the backyard of a home where he fatally shot Officer Jacobs. He continued to flee but ran into officers who had set up a perimeter. The subject committed suicide before he could be taken into custody. Other officers rendered aid to Officer Jacobs and he was transported to a hospital but later died from his wounds. Officer Jacobs was a decorated United States Army veteran and served with the Greenville Police Department for 4-1/2 years. He is survived by his expectant wife and two sons.

Deputy Carl A. Koontz, 27, Howard County (Ind.) Sheriff’s Office, was shot and killed as he and other deputies served arrest and search warrants in connection with a narcotics case. After receiving no response when they knocked and announced themselves at approximately 12:30 a.m., they entered the mobile home which was located in Russiaville. A subject inside the home opened fire, striking Deputy Koontz and a sheriff’s sergeant. A Russiaville police officer and other deputies were able to pull both wounded deputies from the home. They were transported to a local hospital before being flown to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. Deputy Koontz succumbed to his wounds while in surgery. The subject was found dead from a gunshot wound several hours later when a SWAT team made entry to the home. Deputy Koontz had served with the Howard County Sheriff’s Office for two years. He is survived by his wife and son.

Officer Susan Louise Farrell, 30 and Officer Carlos Puente-Morales, 34, Des Moines (Iowa), Police Department, were killed when their patrol car was struck head-on by a wrong-way driver on I-80. The officers were transporting a prisoner from Council Bluffs back to Des Moines when the crash occurred. The officers, the prisoner and the driver of the wrong-way vehicle were killed in the crash. Officer Farrell had served with the Des Moines Police Department for only five months and had previously served with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office for several years. Officer Puente-Morales had served with the Des Moines Police Department for five months and had previously served with the Ottumwa Police Department. He was a member of the Army National Guard.

Trooper Jeffrey Nichols, 27, Texas Department of Public Safety, was killed in a single vehicle crash while on patrol in Lamar County, Texas, at approximately 11:00 p.m. His patrol car left the roadway and struck a tree on FM 38, in Tigertown. Trooper Nichols had served with the Texas Highway Patrol for five years. He is survived by his parents.

Trooper Chad Dermyer, 37, Virginia State Police, was shot and killed while speaking to a suspicious person inside the Greyhound bus terminal in Richmond, Virginia, at approximately 2:45 p.m. He and other officers were participating in an interdiction training course and were conducting stops of persons in the terminal. He spoke to the man briefly before the man suddenly produced a handgun and opened fire, striking Trooper Dermyer in the chest. Other officers shot and killed the subject when the man opened fire on them after a short foot pursuit inside the bus terminal. Trooper Dermyer, who was not wearing a vest, was transported to VCU Medical Center where he later died. Trooper Dermyer was a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. He had served with the Virginia State Police for 17 months and had previously served with the Newport News Police Department. He is survived by his wife and two children.


Below 100

None of those lost during this past month reported for work with the knowledge that it would be their final tour. They all expected to go home to their loved ones. We must not waiver in our efforts to reduce LODDs because this is literally a matter of life and death. We have made progress that many thought was impossible, but it has come at the expense of hard-learned lessons based on the sacrifices of thousands of fallen officers.

The sad truth is that many of our losses, including some this past month, were preventable and, candidly, they just didn’t have to happen. We all have a responsibility to improve officer safety, both individually and across the profession. We must learn from the terrible lessons of the past so that we don’t continue to repeat deadly mistakes. No line-of-duty death should ever be considered as acceptable or without consequence. The best way for us to honor our fallen is by training the living. Those who have given their lives would want nothing less.

It’s 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 every officer 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!

Over the course of the last two decades, we have frequently heard variations of this terrible phrase, “Every 53 hours in this country an officer is killed in the line of duty.” There was a time when this was true but the situation has improved. In fact, if you look at this past quarter and update the phrase, here’s how it would read today: “Every 73 hours in this country an officer is killed in the line of duty.” That is a dramatic difference. There is a lot of work to be done but the lowered frequency seen over the last four years is encouraging.

Special thanks to the Officer Down Memorial Page for their continued support of Below 100 and their assistance with this column. 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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