Deadliest July in a Decade: Gunfire Deaths Up 90%

The tenets of Below 100 continue to be the surest way to ensure your survival

By Dale Stockton  |   Jul 21, 2016
Photo Courtesy Georgetown (Texas) PD. Do you have a target on your back?

We’re now three weeks into July and the month has already become the deadliest July in more than a decade. We’ve lost 18 officers thus far and you have to go back to 2004 to find a worse July.

It’s notable that in July of 2004 we lost 22 officers but “only” five were due to assailant gunfire. The vast majority were vehicle-related incidents. Of the 18 officers who have died so far this month, 11 have died as the result of gunfire. In three incidents, multiple officers were slain by a single assailant. Overall, gunfire deaths are up almost 90% compared to this same time last year.

Interestingly, our overall deaths are essentially the same as this time last year.

The cornerstone principle of Below 100 is to focus on areas under an officer’s control and eliminate preventable line-of-duty deaths. Given the nature of what’s going on right now and the dramatic jump in gunfire deaths, it would be all too easy to dismiss the five tenets of Below 100 as irrelevant. This would be a serious mistake. Below 100 speaks to the current situation because there are things that every officer can and must do to improve the odds of winning a deadly encounter.

The five tenets of Below 100 are:

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

For those of you who think that Below 100 is all about vehicle operations, you’re absolutely wrong. Vehicle safety is a large portion of Below 100 training for good reason: that’s where most of our losses have occurred over the last two decades, and it’s the area where we have the greatest ability to affect change and improve safety.

However, Below 100 also addresses the deadly situations currently being faced. In fact, when you’re discussing ambush attacks and gunfire deaths in general, all of Below 100’s tenets must continue to be a priority.

Let’s walk through them quickly and underscore the relevance.

Seatbelts: This is your most basic piece of safety equipment. It’s saved countless lives and helps you stay in proper driving position during a high speed response.

If you think it gets in your way during a gunfight, then train your way through it. Practice engaging an enemy from your car, you may need this skill. If things get in the way, make necessary adjustments and train accordingly. Keep in mind that most officers go through their careers without involvement in a gunfight, but few make it to retirement without a serious crash. When that day comes, your seatbelt will save your life.

Wear your vest: This should be a given for every officer working in uniform, regardless of assignment. That uniform makes you a target, even if you’re in an administrative position or on a training day. During this past year, officers in an administrative position or operating in a training mode were shot and killed in incidents that would likely have been survivable if they had worn a vest.

And if you’re operating a marked unit, wear your armor because that car makes you a target. Some agencies have take-home cars and officers can be seen running the car in for maintenance while wearing a t-shirt and blue jeans. Comfy? Yes. Smart? Not so much. The bad guys don’t know you’re on a training day or maintenance run.

If you’re in a plainclothes assignment, consider your armor as a highly recommended option and a mandate when working the field or making suspect contacts. That tie or suit coat offers zero ballistic protection.

Speaking of ballistic protection, if your body armor has a trauma plate, make sure you wear it. It’s a good idea to look at upgrade options for the center plates that can significantly improve protection of the center chest area. If you know your assailant is using a long gun, put as much metal and concrete in front of you as possible. Even your car may not be sufficient cover unless you’re directly behind the engine.

Bottom line: Body armor has already saved many thousands of lives. It definitely works but only if you wear it.

Watch your speed: Yes, this one applies. First of all, you can’t help if you don’t get there. In fact, you’ll make the situation worse by taking away needed resources. Officers who go rushing into a situation are often caught by surprise. To the degree that an unfolding event allows, take in all the information possible and have an awareness of where other responding units are. Communicate a plan and a direction of approach that minimizes cross-fire potential.

Don’t drive right into an evolving scene. Your tactical options and ability to perceive threats are much greater when you’re outside your vehicle and approaching on foot. Get there safely, park away from the incident, exit quietly and then listen for a moment. If it doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts. Look for available cover. Consider additional resources as appropriate. If dealing with a subject in a house, consider having them come out to the curb to meet you.

Finally, remember the powerful US Navy SEALS saying, “Don’t run to your death!”

WIN: What’s Important Now? WIN is about situational awareness. Officers must continually reassess their surroundings and the circumstances. Watch out for distractions. For instance: Are you taking that phone call or responding to a text while you’re on a traffic stop? When you’re getting ready for work, are you getting your mind in the game or are you stewing about issues at home? By staying focused, and thinking WIN, you’re much more likely to prevail in a deadly encounter.

Remember Complacency Kills: We’ve all heard this (or a similar version) since the day we got in the business but it’s important to underscore its importance. Complacency is the most insidious of threats because it opens you up to dangers in even low-level or frequently accomplished tasks. Emphasize and understand the need to be vigilant. Don’t let your assignment become so routine that complacency can sneak in.

For instance, if you’re a motor officer and writing dozens of tickets every day, there’s a risk of becoming complacent on traffic stops due to the frequency. However, traffic stops can easily involve much more than a minor violation and many deadly encounters evolve from a traffic stop. Continually challenge yourself and your fellow officers to maintain that edge. Expect the unexpected.

Sum Total

A bad guy determined to kill officers, or willing to die trying, has a likelihood of inflicting serious injury or death. Your best defense is to follow the tenets of Below 100 and remember these related basics: contact and cover (Google it if you don’t know); stay rested, fit and ready; wear your safety equipment; and finally, when you see a fellow officer pushing the envelope or taking unnecessary chances, have a courageous conversation. They’re never easy but they’re better than attending a funeral.   

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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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