Published Monday, November 12, 2012
By Walter C. Jones
Morris News Service
ATLANTA – Last year was the first time in which more U.S. law-enforcement officers died in the line of duty due to gunfire than car accidents, part of a trend that is reflected in Georgia by the steady rise in the number of assaults against officers.
Here, there were 82 instances where officers were shot at, according to figures Morris News Service obtained from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. That was the second year in a row where cases of shots fired at officers jumped 40 percent from the prior year.
Georgia's Commissioner of Public Safety, Col. Mark McDonough, worries that the trend will continue in the current year when the final tally is made.
In the current fiscal year, which began July 1, the state is on pace to exceed its peak set last year.
"I think we've got dangerous folks in this world," he said. "We've got hard times, and people don't want to go to jail."
Analysis of FBI figures shows that the rate at which Georgia officers get shot at has fallen in the last 10 years. That's because the number of police officers, troopers and deputies has increased as the number of instances climbed.
In 2002, the rate was four out of every 1,000 officers were shot at in Georgia. Last year it was 1.75.
But GBI Director Vernon Keenan doesn't look at the rate. A declining rate is no comfort for the officers being fired upon. He focuses on the actual number.
Besides, even at the current rate, an officer would have a 53 percent chance of facing a bullet sometime in a 30-year career.
The law-enforcement community used to focus just on the number of officers who died at the hands of criminals, Keenan said, but most of the times the cops prevail thanks to training, body armor and reinforcements. Now, the FBI reports only 12 percent of officers getting shot at wind up injured.
Keenan blames the increased incidences on a mix of factors.
"It's a combination of anti-authority, anti-government sentiment, and you factor in substance abuse, alcohol and drugs, and you factor in general health issues, and the effect of violence in the media and video games," he said. "It's a storm of issues."
The bad guys may even be better marksmen than the officers thanks to hours of realistic video games, notes Chris Sutton, a former officer and instructor who now heads a personal-defense training program.
"In the past 10-15 years, there have been more realistic video games created where shooting, killing and breaking the law are part of the game," he said. "A person who plays a very realistic shooting game hours on end for days, months or years has more tactical-shooting training than most police officers."
And they may be desensitized to the consequences of violence, according to Sutton and other law-enforcement experts.
At the same time, tougher prison sentences have raised the stakes for criminals who know if they can't escape from the police, they're going to prison for a long time, maybe for life.
Or it could be that the thrill of a crime is heightened by a gunfight, speculates Matthew Podowitz, founder of No Victims Atlanta.
"If you look at what's behind that, it really comes down to an increase in desperation," he said. "... They may get more of a rush, more of a thrill, in the prospect of shooting at a cop."
For instance, a man charged in 2010 with deliberately leading a trooper into a high-speed chase and then shooting him to death after wrecking had his own website glorifying cop killing, McDonough said.
If criminals are becoming more menacing, with desperate, antisocial mentalities and bigger guns, the officers are becoming more peaceful.
"One thing that we're seeing in training is the exact opposite. We 're seeing a much softer generation that is disconnected with interactions with individuals," McDonough said. "When I was a kid it was common playing on the playground. ... We've had kids who come in for training who have never been in a fight before."
Many military veterans enter law enforcement precisely because they want to get away from violence, he said.
Then there are the cases of "suicide by cop" where a depressed person creates a situation in which officers are forced to shoot him to save their lives.
Officers may survive such incidents without a scratch, but they generally receive deep psychological wounds, Keenan said.
"No officer comes to work hoping they're going to get to shoot someone," he said.
FBI statistics show that cops are most at risk between midnight and 2 a.m. when responding to a report of violence, such as a fight or domestic dispute.
To prevent shootings, police agencies try various techniques. One, called community policing, involves patrol officers making personal contact with children and people living along their beat in an effort to create human connections.
Even the way agencies respond to shootings with officers can make a difference in future instances. The GBI, which investigates most cases involving law enforcement, strives to be transparent and objective so local citizens will believe officers were not given special treatment, Keenan said.
Agencies also are continually trying to enhance training for dealing with tense situations such as video simulators and ensuring officers know when their policy allows the use of force.
Sometimes appearances alone can make the difference, known in the business as command presence, according to Sutton. He recounts an interview with one murder suspect who had fired at cops before but didn't when arrested.
"When asked why he didn't he stated, 'I didn't think I could take him,'" Sutton said.
Always search for weapons when there's a legitimate reason. Keep the gun hand free. Shine a spotlight when approaching suspects to blind them, he advised.
The overall crime rate has dropped 80 percent in the last two decades, but that hasn't convinced the law-enforcement community to lower its guard.
"This is a job where there's going to be that conflict, that interaction," McDonough said.