CEDAR CITY – The number of U.S police officers feloniously killed in the line of duty rose 61 percent above the year before – and there were the highest number of ambush-style attacks than in the past two decades, according to statistics released this week.
The grim numbers, outlined in a preliminary report published by the FBI, show the 66 officers killed last year was a 61 percent increase from the 41 officers killed in the line of duty in 2015. Likewise, the number of officers killed via an ambush was 167 percent higher in 2016 than the year before.
The Officer Down Memorial Page also reported earlier this year that the number of felonious deaths in the line of duty were at a five-year high.
Felonious deaths are considered a result of the suspects involved intentionally taking the life of the law enforcement agent.
“Those statistics make any officer fearful,” Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower said. “But the ambushes are what is really concerning because they’re intentional and premeditated. Those aren’t incidents where someone got heated and tensions and raised and they did something they hadn’t planned to do. Ambushes are different and require a different mentality by the offender.”
The recent FBI report comes even as President Trump calls on America to support law enforcement and just days before the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would impose the death penalty on those convicted of killing or attempting to kill first responders.
The “Thin Blue Line Act,” HR 115, was approved in the chamber 271-143.
“America’s police officers and first responders are the first ones on scene to help those in harm’s way,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., in a statement after Thursday’s vote. “These brave men and women and their families put it all on the line and deserve our unwavering support. Getting this bill signed into law will protect those who serve our communities and send a clear message: targeting or killing our first responders will not be tolerated.”
The attitude now coming out of the Nation’s Capital is a breath of fresh air for many officers who blame the previous administration for having perpetuated a “false narrative” regarding law enforcement that not only heightened racial tensions but created police-community tensions across the country.
“The narrative that was started by the president (Obama) and then was repeated and upheld by the national media was absolutely false,” UHP Lt. Steve Esplin said. “And I believe that false narrative was responsible for the targeting and the death of a lot of officers.”
The 2014 shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri two years ago launched Black Lives Matter protests onto the national stage drawing more attention to police-involved shootings. Tensions continued escalating as more officers became targets.
This situation was only exacerbated as the media continued the “hands up don’t shoot,” story line that helped to make Brown into the victim.
“And those news agencies never did apologize for that false narrative,” Iron County Sheriff Lt. Del Schlosser. “It wasn’t the local media that spread that or the state media agencies. It was the national media, the big chains. And even after it was proven and all the information came out showing that Brown was not a victim and that the incident did not go down the way it did – the media never apologized, recanted or acknowledged they were wrong and those kinds of stories have continued to put our officers at risk.”
Last year, a heavily armed sniper stalked and killed five cops in Dallas at a what was supposed to be a “peaceful protest.” Less than two weeks later, three more officers were gunned down and three others wounded in an ambush in Baton Rouge.
With 62 officers shot and killed last year, gun-related incidents were the top cause of death. These included 37 incidents with handguns, 24 with rifles and one incident with a shotgun. Of the 62, 17 were the result of ambush attacks, according to the FBI report.
“The scary thing about ambushes is that officers really can’t plan for them,” Cedar City Police Sgt. Jerry Womack said. “As an officer, we still have to respond to calls for service and that’s when a lot of these types of situations happen and the suspect always has the advantage.”
The FBI numbers showing officers ambushed and killed in gun-related incidents aren’t just numbers for Iron County Sheriff Deputy Jason Thomas, but reflect the reality of what officers are threatened with every day.
Thomas almost became a statistic himself 10 years ago when he was shot and severely injured on the job.
Then an officer for Cedar City Police Department, Thomas was shot at point blank range with a 12-gauge shotgun while assisting the suspect whose vehicle had become stuck in the snow.
“You remember everything,” he said. “The day, Jan. 5, 2007. The exact time, 7:02 in the evening. You remember what you were doing, you remember the smell. The smell is different than anything else you’ve ever smelled. You remember the environment, the colors, the scene.”
For Thomas, the FBI numbers sparks a bittersweet sense of guilt and gratitude.
“It’s part of the survivor’s guilt I have, knowing that I lived,” he said. “I survived that attack while my brothers didn’t. At the same time I am grateful.”
The experience, while painful, gave Thomas insight however, on the importance of not allowing himself to become complacent on the job.
“No two stops are the same,” the deputy said. “You can go to 15 traffic stops that day that all go well but that 16th one may be different. They’re all different and as an officer you have to recognize that. You can’t treat any call or any stop like the last one because none of them are the same and you don’t know which one may be the one that if you are complacent, it’s going to kill you.”
Thomas’ bulletproof vest ultimately saved him but not all officers are as lucky. According to the FBI numbers, 56 of the officers feloniously killed last year were wearing their vests at the time of their death.
“There are weapons that can penetrate the vests,” Gower said. “And there are holes where the vest doesn’t cover. And the vest is only for the upper body. They still save more lives than would be saved without them.”
Many officers say the answer to reducing the statistics must start at the top. They believe these numbers will begin to come down as those in Congress and the White House continue to show their support for law enforcement.
But like Thomas, they realize they must also be vigilant in keeping themselves safe and to stay alert and aware of their own surroundings.
“They have to keep their senses heightened at all times because they need to always be aware of what’s happening around them,” Womack said. “We have posters all over the department with different sayings and we make sure we do regular training so officers remain at the top of their game at all times because that’s the only way they’re going to keep themselves safe.”
Despite the statistics and the largely negative perceptions for police officers over the last few years, local law enforcement say they have continued to enjoy the support from the community and consistently reiterate their gratitude.
“We are very lucky here,” Esplin said. “Law enforcement has the community support here in Iron and Beaver Counties and we are grateful for that support.”
Here’s a look back at the Utah officers killed in 2016:
A total of three officers died last year in Utah in the line of duty. One was found to be an accident while the other two were considered felonious deaths including; West Valley City Police Officer Cody Brotherson and Unified Police Officer Doug Barney.
Brotherson, 25, was struck and killed Nov. 6 during a police pursuit of a stolen car. The 3-year veteran was putting out tire spikes when the suspect vehicle hit him near 4100 South and 2200 West. His death marked the first officer killed in West Valley in the line of duty since the city’s inception in 1980.
Barney was shot and killed Jan. 17, while investigating a traffic crash near 2160 East 4500 South.
Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Eric Ellsworth, 31, died in the line of duty Nov. 22 – four days after he was struck by a vehicle and critically injured while directing traffic around a low hanging power line near Garland. His death was ruled an accident.
A total of 118 U.S. officers were killed in the line of duty.
The 66 victim officers died from injuries sustained in 56 separate incidents. Fifty-four of those incidents have been cleared by arrest or exceptional means.
In 2016, an additional 52 officers were killed in line-of-duty accidents, which are officer deaths that were found not to be willful and intentional. This is an increase of 16 percent when compared with the 45 officers who were accidentally killed in 2015. By region, 24 officers died from accidents in the South, 12 in the Midwest, nine in the West, five in the Northeast, and two in Puerto Rico.
Twenty-six of the officers died as a result of automobile accidents, 12 were struck by vehicles, and seven were fatally injured in motorcycle accidents. Three officers died in accidental shootings, two victim officers drowned, one died in an aircraft accident, and one victim officer was fatally injured when thrown from a horse.
Of the 26 officers who died due to automobile accidents, eight were wearing seat belts. Eleven officers were not wearing seat belts (five of whom were partially or totally ejected from the vehicles), and seat belt use was not reported for seven of the officers who were killed in automobile accidents.
Final statistics and complete details will be available in the Uniform Crime Reporting Program’s publication, “Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted” (2016), which will be published on the FBI website in the fall.
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