Rise in Police Deaths Defies Crime-Rate Decline

Killing of three N.H. police officers in one week prompts search for causes of trend.

In a solemn march of solidarity, where police outnumbered residents of Hillsboro, N.H., some 5,000 officers Wednesday came to honor one of their fallen. Officer Jeremy Charron was killed last Sunday, after he encountered two young men asleep in their car. The driver allegedly shot Officer Charron several times, after handing over his driver's license and registration. Charron was the third New Hampshire police officer killed in just one week.

The deaths reflect a national rise in the numbers of law-enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. Despite a continuing drop in national crime rates, including violent crimes, the number of law enforcement officers killed (80) through June 1997 was up 21 percent over last year, according to the Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS), a police rights group in Washington, D.C. The rise, say experts, points to a need for better community work with youths and a closer look at the quality of police driving skills and their vehicles.

"The kinds of crimes that continue to be committed at a high rate are the really violent crimes," says Daniel Monti, professor of sociology at Boston University. "And those persons who use deadly force are more often than not going to put police officers at higher risk." Moreover, he says, violent crimes among youths are up. Dr. Monti, author of "Wannabe: Gangs in Suburbs and Schools," cites two reasons: Teenagers and young adults in their early 20s are not prepared to deal with life and death issues, and "we make it easy for young people to have access to weapons."

Monti goes on to say that this pattern can be stopped if the whole community of adults provide learning and growing experiences for youths - in the world of work, religion, and neighborhood life. "[Youths] have to be engaged on all levels," he says. "They have to learn that not every failure is catastrophic and not every confrontation needs to be ended with violent force."

Morton Feldman, executive vice president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police in Miami, agrees that youth violence is an issue that needs addressing. But he points out that nearly as many officers as were killed feloniously were killed in motor accidents. The COPS figures back that up. Nearly half of the 80 officers who died in 1997 were killed forcefully; 34 were shot to death, three were stabbed, and one was strangled. Nearly as many died in vehicle accidents; 21 died in automobile accidents, 10 were struck by vehicles, and four died in motorcycle accidents.

"Although so far we have not been able to exercise control over the criminal who uses a firearm, we should be able to do something about the number of officers killed in traffic accidents," Mr. Feldman says. He is unaware of any studies analyzing why the auto fatality rate of police is so high, but he suspects that because of budget constraints, some municipalities are buying smaller cars that provide less protection. MOREOVER, police officers are often involved in high-speed chases, which some communities have placed restrictions on because of the risk of injury both to police and citizens. In addition to sturdier vehicles, Feldman suggests that officers may need better training in defensive or evasive driving techniques.

While it doesn't undercut the need to address these safety issues, Feldman points out that the number of law-enforcement officers killed so far this year is statistically similar to past years.

This year shows a big increase because the number killed last year (116) was the lowest since 1959. The yearly average, he says, is about 150 officer deaths. In 1995, 172 officers were killed in the line of duty, 169 were killed in 1994, and 155 in 1993.

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