Not since the days when Wyatt Earp worked the Wild West wearing a badge and a gun has there been such good news for law enforcement.
The number of federal, state, local, tribal and territorial officers in the United States who died in the line of duty last year dropped to a total of 111. Think about that. In the whole United States of America, we lost only 111 officers during 2013. That's the lowest number since 1959.
The most encouraging news in the latest report from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund is seen in the death-by-gun category. At a time when there is so much worry about rampant gun deaths, only 33 officers — nationwide — lost their lives in the line of duty because of a firearm fatality. The number would have been even lower had it not been for a former Los Angeles cop named Christopher Dorner who went on a shooting spree last February and killed four people, including three Southern California police officers.
The number of law enforcement gun deaths hasn't been that low since 1887, back in the post-gold rush days when deputized frontiersmen tried to keep the peace in places with names like Tombstone.
So, at a time when the country seems consumed with worry about mass shootings such as the ones at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., the school in Newtown, Conn. and the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., how is it that law enforcement is enjoying such a low mortality rate?
NLEOMF chairman and CEO Craig Floyd attributes it to an increased "culture of safety" within police departments. For example, Floyd says, after a spike in officer gun deaths in 2011, more members of law enforcement routinely began wearing bulletproof vests.
"The only good news is zero deaths," Floyd said. "But this very significant drop in law enforcement fatalities the past two years is extremely encouraging."
Let's get real. The lower police mortality rate is not all attributable to cops being more careful while on the job. Our justice system is keeping more criminals behind bars and for longer periods of time. Massive prison overcrowding, nationwide, proves that.
There have been major developments in crime-fighting technology, such as strategic placement of surveillance cameras in trouble spots. There has been a push to complete a backlog of DNA tests helping pinpoint viable suspects, and that keeps officers out of risky investigative situations. And let's not forget the active gun buyback programs and neighborhood watch campaigns that help keep our streets safer.
In addition, the American population is aging. The median age is now 37.2 years old — well past the prime crime-committing ages of 13 to 25.
While 39 people were executed for their crimes in America last year, I'm not convinced by arguments that capital punishment actually deters crime. If you look at a graph of annual crime statistics next to a graph of peak execution years (1997-2002), it is easy to see that the total number of crimes fluctuated only slightly. There is no measurable proof that criminals with murder in mind stop to rethink their actions because their ultimate punishment could be the death chamber. Most murderous lawbreakers aren't known for stopping to think things through.
There is surely a combination of factors that delivers to us the good news that there were fewer law enforcement deaths in 2013. And it's probably a good time for all of us to stop and think about all those brave men and women who leave their homes every day to keep us safe, knowing they could pay the ultimate price for simply doing their job.
Law enforcement deaths are also arbitrary. Can you imagine working in a career in which at any moment you could die?
Last year, a majority of officers — 46 — lost their lives in traffic-related accidents. Eighteen died of job-related illnesses. Six fell to their deaths while working, two drowned, two others were stabbed to death, one was electrocuted, one died in a helicopter crash and one was blown to bits in an explosion.
No surprise that working on Friday and Saturday nights proved to be the most lethal, but Tuesday night also proved pretty deadly. February and September were a peace officer's most dangerous months. Most of the officers who died were male, 107 of them. Four were female and, on average, the dead were the parent of at least two children. The oldest officer to die was 70 and the youngest was 23.
The state of Texas led the nation with 13 fatalities, followed by California, Mississippi and New York with 10 each. Arkansas (six) rounded out the top five on the list.
The last officers to die were Sgt. Robert Baron of Sandoval County, N.M., who was struck by a car while investigating a crash, and Sgt. Kevin Stauffer of Tupelo, Miss., who was killed while pursuing armed bank robbers.
Sadly, their names will soon be added to the nearly 20,000 other names carved into the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Yes, while 2013 saw a record-low death toll of law enforcement personnel, 2014 is probably a good time to stop a cop and say thanks.
— Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.