I remember clearly the first time that I heard of a police officer being killed. It was 1964 and I was 7 years old.
In fact, it was not just one police officer. It was three police officers who were all shot and killed at the same time in Gwinnett County. I can still see the images in the daily newspaper of the three as they all lay handcuffed together at the base of a tree.
While I still remember the news of the killings, I don’t remember very much about how the news made me feel. Maybe it was because I absorbed the news just like any other bad news that a 7-year-old learns about. I’m sure that my parents limited the impact that it would have had if I had truly understood the ramifications of a crime that would draw international attention.
My father was in the process of beginning his new job with the very same police department that employed the three officers who were killed. I think that I knew that what had happened was bad, but I don’t remember being afraid that my father was about to start a career that had ended brutally for those three officers. But what I do remember is hearing that this type of crime, where police officers are killed, very seldom happens. Maybe it was true then, but it surely is not true anymore.
A lot has happened since those headlines of April 17, 1964. My father did become a police officer and so did I. I recently celebrated my 32nd anniversary in the law enforcement and judicial arena. During that time, many police officers have been killed in the line of duty. I have never met the majority of them, but some of them happen to be good friends. One of them happened to be a great friend. I suppose that it is naïve to think that police officers would never be killed in the line of duty. It is wishful thinking, but not reality.
After all, they do find themselves sometimes standing directly in the path of those who are determined to commit crimes and who see them as nothing more than a road hazard toward their eventual goal. Some years are worse than others concerning the number of police officers killed. And while we will all agree that just one police officer killed is too many, the average typically balances out over the long run to be a fairly predictable figure.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, 2009 statistics show that 124 police officers were killed in the line of duty. While that number is bad enough, it is actually a 7 percent decrease from 2008. According to comparative figures, this number has not been this low since 1959, when 108 police officers were killed in the line of duty.
But those numbers over the last year have caused the bell curve to literally sound a distress call that something has gone terribly wrong. Information available from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund showed 160 officers killed during the year, which is a 20 percent increase from the previous year. More importantly, the numbers show that 10 police officers in 2010 were killed in a series of incidents whereby several police officers were killed at the same time.
Ambushes and a display of weaponry that are mindful of a military action are no longer unusual. This trend was particularly prevalent in the final weeks of 2010 and the early weeks of 2011, where several officers were killed in two multi-fatality events while participating in the line of duty by armed assailants. This is a trend that should be carefully evaluated not only by police managers who evaluate policies and procedure that will help protect our police officers, but should also be evaluated and contemplated by each of us.
What does this say about us and our attitude toward our nation’s law enforcement officers? What was once considered one of the last taboos, killing a police officer, is suddenly commonplace. The image that I saw as a 7-year-old boy brought horror to many people who were old enough to digest its message.
Today those faded images from 1964 on the front page of a yellowed and brittle newspaper pale in comparison to the full-colored, full-page, depiction of dead police officers strewn about a crime scene that we see much too often today. Have we become a nation where respect for the written law and those who are sworn to uphold it have become collateral damage to the overall disintegration of our once powerful moral and ethical considerations that have kept us on the path of all things civilized?
Or is this simply a blip on the screen that will balance out as it has done before? We better hope that the past few weeks are an anomaly and that the outrage of these senseless deaths will be heard long after the newspapers carrying their carnage have been thrown in the recycling bin. And we better make clear examples of those who commit these crimes to the others who are considering similar actions.
Because like a powerful tank careening off of a cliff, this is a situation that has no means of reverse once it goes into motion. Once it hits bottom, the pieces of a once powerful tool are no longer functional.
Stan Hall is director of Gwinnett County’s victim’s witness program. If you would like to have him speak at your next group event, send requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.