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Backing the Blue

Monday, May 14, 2018
By Alan R. Hanson, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General

  • Sgt. Noel Ramirez and Deputy Taylor Lindsey: killed in an ambush, April 19.
  • Officer Rogelio Santander: fatally shot during an attempted shoplifting, April 24.
  • Cpl. Eugene Cole: gunned down at a traffic stop, April 25.
Police salute

In the span of a single week in April, four American law enforcement officers lost their lives in the line of duty. They were rookie cops and veterans. Married men and fathers. A husband of 41 years and a deputy whose time in service could still be counted in months. All peacekeepers who met violent ends.

By the end of April, 48 law enforcement officers had been killed on the job this year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. News reports have signaled that 2018 could be an especially deadly year for police, with one officer dying almost every two-and-a-half days on average. The mounting tally is a somber reminder, as if we needed one, that law enforcement is an occupation full of uncertain odds and grave risks.

Officers understand that danger is intrinsic to their work, but they don't take it lightly. John Bouthillette, a retired police chief and one of the principal trainers under the VALOR officer safety and wellness program, explains that calling a cop fearless misses the point. It's not a yearning for adventure that draws most people into the profession, he says, but a deep sense of civic obligation. He tells me that, when asked why they chose to join the ranks, officers commonly reply, "because if I don't, who will?"

In 2017, 46 law enforcement officers were killed by felonious acts, according to FBI statistics, a merciful drop of 30 percent from the previous year. Another 47 died in automobile crashes and other accidents while on duty. FBI data on assaults will not be available until later this year, but it is worth remembering that tens of thousands of assaults were committed against law enforcement officers in 2016.

Under the steady direction of Jon Adler, the Office of Justice Programs' Bureau of Justice Assistance has supported training for thousands of officers under the VALOR imprint, providing tactical instruction on handling violent episodes. Our friends in the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, led by Phil Keith, are among the program's principal partners, supporting VALOR and other officer training programs, in addition to hiring thousands of officers and implementing the National Blue Alert Network and the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act.

The threat of physical harm is so real, so palpable, that Justice Department-sponsored training teaches officers not only how to recognize and avoid fatal encounters – what the FBI has called the "deadly mix" – but how to respond after being struck by a bullet. Courses are taught by actual survivors, veterans like John Bouthillette, who early in his career sustained critical injuries from a gunman's assault. He says that being shot doesn't mean you're going to die, but it does mean you're going to have to work harder.

Countering a threat and carrying on while under assault, even after being struck, is a skill that officers must learn. It's a daunting prospect, but one that hundreds of thousands of brave men and women sign up knowing they may have to face.

And our nation is stronger for it.

As Police Commissioner of New York City more than a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt said, "No man is worth his salt, who is not ready at all times to risk his body, to risk his well-being, to risk his life in a great cause." Later, as a presidential candidate, Roosevelt would deliver a speech shortly after taking a bullet from a would-be assassin.

Living with danger is a time-honored standard among America's police professionals. Again and again, our law enforcement officers have shown themselves willing to stand in the line of fire to protect others. They do it because if they don't, who will?

We are grateful.

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