Final Tour: April 2016

A bittersweet month for law enforcement

By Dale Stockton  |   May 2, 2016

Two officers died in the line of duty during the month of April, bringing the total loss for 2016 to 32. Although the loss of these two officers was the ultimate tragedy for their families and agencies, losing “only” two officers in the course of an entire month has only happened once before over the course of more than 100 years.

So far in 2016, 16 officers have been killed by assailant gunfire, 13 have died in vehicle-related incidents, one died as the result of a heart attack, one was lost in an aircraft crash, and one was killed by accidental (“friendly”) gunfire. 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 the losses for April.

Officer Steven Michael Smith, 54, Columbus, Ohio Police Department, died as the result of a gunshot wound sustained three days earlier as the department’s SWAT team attempted to serve a felony warrant on an arson suspect. Officer Smith was riding in the turret area of an armored vehicle as it approached the apartment building where the suspect was located. He was struck in the head by a single round. He was transported to a local hospital where he remained until succumbing to the wound. Officer Smith was an organ donor and, even in his death, he ultimately saved the lives of others. The subject wanted on the warrant was taken into custody following the shooting. Officer Smith had served more than 27 years and is survived by his wife and two adult children.

Agent Jose Barraza, 29, United States Border Patrol, died as the result of a vehicle crash on I-10 near Fort Hancock, Texas, at approximately 7:30 a.m. Officer Barraza was operating his department K-9 vehicle and headed to his residence for end of shift when his vehicle struck the rear of a large semi-tractor trailer rig. The investigation of the crash was continuing at the time of this article and additional details were not available. Agent Barraza had served with USBP for almost eight years and is survived by his wife and two sons.

2016: Where We Stand

We are now one-third of the way through 2016 and our losses continue to trend lower, despite a high level of negative sentiment being directed to police.

It’s a tough time to be an officer and it’s definitely a dangerous job. Better tactics, increased use of body armor, improved emergency medical capabilities and use of self/buddy treatment have all played a part in lowering our losses. Also notable is that our preventable line-of-duty deaths are trending downward, perhaps an indication that more officers understand the significant role that common sense plays in officer safety (such as Below 100).

Although we have only four months of the year behind us, we’re currently tracking to sustain an annual loss of fewer than 100 officers, something that has not happened since 1943. This is definitely progress, and we should build upon it, refusing to accept any loss as acceptable. We’ve fought hard to make improvements in officer safety and we must jealously guard these gains like a military force gaining new ground.

I strongly encourage each of you to objectively examine every LODD or serious injury as the details emerge and look for lessons that can help prevent a recurrence. After reviewing all of our losses thus far this year, here are some recommendations:

High-Risk Activities

Several of the deaths during 2016 have involved high risk activities like warrant service, responding to a subject with a gun, and taking a wanted felon into custody. Law enforcement is not without risk. But some of these officers died in situations where there was some realization of potential danger before they were killed. Different tactics, better cover, or slowing a situation down may have saved lives. It’s not the intent of this column to second-guess specific actions or decisions made by those who have fallen, but rather to challenge all officers to take reasonable steps to improve safety and increase their odds of winning deadly encounters.

Review your tactics: 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.

Remember: Concealment is not cover and this is especially important when dealing with a subject who has a long gun.

Wear your body armor: After a seatbelt, body armor is probably the most important piece of safety equipment for police officers. There’s no denying that today’s officers are operating in a very hostile environment and unprovoked assaults have become more frequent. Body armor should be mandatory for every uniformed officer, including administrators. This includes any time you are in uniform or driving a marked unit, even if you’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 only if you wear it.

What’s Important Now (WIN)? There’s so much in our environment that competes for our attention that it’s easy to become distracted. The Below 100 tenet of WIN squarely targets situational awareness and prioritization. Officers must be fully aware of the evolving circumstances and continually reassess their situation. Thinking WIN can save your life.

Remember: Complacency kills! When it comes to complacency, the reality is that complacency dramatically increases the danger of almost any police action or engagement and every officer must continually strive to maintain a degree of vigilance and readiness. Improved training and tactics are showing significant benefit, but complacency can turn any situation deadly in an instant.

Courageous conversations: The Navy SEALS have a great saying, “Don’t run to your death.” Going into dangerous situations without adequate cover or engaging too quickly has been the story behind many police losses. If you know an officer who tends to push the envelope or take unnecessary chances, take the time to tell them that you care and that their family and department needs them. Point out that they’re actually endangering others who may have to come to their rescue. Confronting a fellow officer is never easy, but it’s far better than going to their funeral.

Bottom line: Don’t wait because you may not get a second chance.

Honor the Fallen

Below 100 trainers believe the best way to honor our fallen is by training the living. We know that those who have made the ultimate sacrifice would want nothing less. Below 100 is a program that embraces common sense officer safety by focusing on five core tenets:

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

Conclusion

Every loss should serve as a survival lesson for the living. The reality of policing is that not every LODD is preventable, but we’ve lost way too many officers where use of safety equipment or common sense could have prevented a tragedy. This must change. Here’s a challenge to each of you: Have the courageous conversation with those who need to embrace the tenets of Below 100 and model the behavior as an example to others. The life you save may be your own! For more information visit Below 100. Special thanks to the Officer Down Memorial Page for their assistance in providing line-of-duty death information that forms the basis for the Final Tour series.

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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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