Seven officers died during the month of December and, while no line-of-duty loss is ever acceptable, the loss of seven is something of a respite after losing three times that many in November. That made November the deadliest single month seen in this country in more than five years. Of the seven officers lost last month, three were killed by gunfire, two died in vehicle crashes, one was assaulted and one succumbed to 9/11-related illness. The December deaths brought the total loss for 2016 to 140, a level that is a little more than 7% greater than what we saw in 2015.
What is particularly notable about 2016 is the level of gunfire deaths. Sixty-three officers died as the result of assailant gunfire, an increase of more than 60% compared to last year. Most concerning is the fact that many of the gunfire losses were targeted attacks and several incidents involved multiple officers being killed by a single assailant.
Vehicle-related losses (56) are up a little more than 16% compared to same time last year. One area where we saw a decrease was heart-attack-related deaths: A total of six officers were lost in 2016. This is dramatically down from what we saw in 2014 and 2015 when 20 and 17 officers died, respectively. (Note: Many of these officers were in their 30s and 40s, with several in their 20s. Heart attacks remain the third leading cause of death for law enforcement officers.)
After a review of December losses, there will be a high-level summary of 2016 along with some information relevant to officer safety. On behalf of everyone at Calibre Press, I extend the deepest condolences to those who have lost an officer. Listed in order of occurrence, following are summaries of the losses for December.
Trooper Frankie Williams, 31, New Jersey State Police, was killed when his patrol car was struck head-on by a vehicle on Route 55, near milepost 22, in Millville. He was responding to a call for service when the other vehicle crossed the grass median of the highway and collided with his patrol car. He was flown to Cooper University Hospital where he succumbed to his injuries. The subject in the vehicle that struck his patrol car was also killed. Trooper Williams had served with the New Jersey State Police for only 11 months.
Deputy Ryan Thomas, 30, Valencia County (N.M.) Sheriff’s Office, was killed in a single-vehicle crash near the intersection of Manzano Expressway and South Del Oro Loop at approximately 9:00 p.m. He was responding to a call for service when his patrol car left the roadway and overturned. He suffered fatal injuries when he was ejected from the patrol car.
Deputy Thomas had served with the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office for one year. He is survived by his expectant wife and one child.
Public Safety Officer Jody Smith, 25, Georgia Southwestern State University and Officer Nicholas Smarr, 25, of the Americus (Ga.) Police Department, were shot and killed after they responded to a domestic violence incident at a local apartment complex near the Georgia Southwestern State University. Officer Smarr responded to the call at approximately 9:40 a.m. and Officer Smith, who was nearby, responded as backup. Officer Smith went to the back of the apartment while Officer Smarr approached the slightly ajar front door. Officer Smarr heard commotion inside, called out and entered, where he encountered a male subject along with a woman and child.
Unbeknownst to the officers, the male subject had outstanding felony warrants. The man fled out the back door with Officer Smarr in pursuit. The man shot at the officers, striking both before fleeing the property. Despite being wounded, Officer Smarr returned fire and then ran to Officer Smith, rolled him onto his back, and performed CPR until he (Smarr) lost consciousness. When backup officers arrived, they found the wounded officers laying in the backyard, with Officer Smarr slumped over Officer Smith. Officer Smarr died that day from his wounds. Officer Smith died the following day. The suspect fled the scene but was found deceased the next day following a SWAT raid of a local residence.
Officer Smarr was a U.S Marine Corps veteran, had served with the Americus Police Department for one year and had prior law enforcement experience. Officer Smarr and Officer Smith had known each other their entire lives and were best friends. Officer Smith was scheduled to be married in May, 2017, with Officer Smarr serving as his best man.
Corrections Officer Lisa Mauldin, 47, Miller County (Ark.) Sheriff’s Office, was killed when she and another officer were attacked by an inmate inside the Miller County Detention Center’s kitchen at approximately 1:00 p.m. Both officers were seriously injured and Officer Mauldin was transported to Wadley Regional Medical Center where she succumbed to her injuries. The other injured officer was admitted to the same hospital and is expected to survive. Other officers subdued the inmate and he remains in custody.
Lt. William G. Fearon, 42, New Jersey State Police, died as the result of a rare form of cancer that he developed following recovery work performed at the World Trade Center for two years following the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks. Lieutenant Fearson had served with the New Jersey State Police for 22 years. He is survived by his wife and three children.
Trooper Landon Weaver, 23, Pennsylvania State Police, was shot and killed as he was handling a domestic protective order call at a residence in the Juniata Township at approximately 6:30 p.m. The subject who shot Trooper Weaver had been released earlier in the month on bail for a felony charge. The subject was located the following morning and killed during a confrontation with police. Trooper Weaver had served with the Pennsylvania State Police for only one year and was assigned to Troop G. He is survived by his wife.
A Quick Summary of 2016 & Lessons Learned
Most notable in 2016 was the death of 63 officers due to assailant gunfire, the highest in five years (2011: 68). Fifty-six officers died in vehicle-related incidents, seven died as the result of a heart attack, three correctional officers died in assaults, three officers succumbed to 9/11-related illness, two were killed by accidental (friendly) gunfire, two officers drowned, one correctional officer was stabbed to death, one officer was lost in an aircraft crash, one correctional officer died in a fall and one officer succumbed to injuries after being thrown from a horse.
Gunfire & Tactical Considerations: Only twice in the last 20 years have losses attributable to assailant gunfire exceeded those lost in vehicle operations but 2016 will make the third time (63 gunfire vs. 56 vehicle). Perhaps most troubling is that several shootings have involved a single assailant who took on multiple officers, and many shootings in 2016 have been targeted ambushes. Preventing attacks from a determined assailant who is willing to die while trying to kill officers is an incredible challenge. However, there are some things you can do to move the odds in your favor.
High-risk activities: Activities like warrant service, responding to a subject with a gun, serving protective orders, and taking a wanted felon into custody come with significant risk. It’s always been a component of police work, but some of these officers died in situations where there was (or should have been) some realization of potential danger before they were killed. Different tactics, better cover, or slowing a situation down may save lives. Remember the Navy SEALS saying: Don’t run to your death.
Armor: New advances in armor provide a higher level of coverage at a reasonable weight. Significant improvements have also been made in armored plates which allow for a viable up-armor option when situations or environments indicate higher risk or long gun threat. Make sure you take a look at products that contain the new lighter weight and more capable fibers (like Dyneema). The coverage-to-weight ratio is definitely improving.
Vehicles: The level of loss due to vehicle incidents was up in 2016 and officers continue to die in crashes that are clearly preventable. Half of all fatal police crashes are single vehicle and the primary collision factor is usually speed. Review of crash information and recent studies show that approximately half of officers choose not to wear a seatbelt while on duty even though they wear a seatbelt when off duty. Seatbelts are an essential piece of safety equipment. Seatbelts work, but only if you wear them. Don’t do it for yourself, do it for your family.
In-Progress Events: Exercise caution when responding to in-progress incidents and tactically position yourself upon arrival to allow assessment before engagement whenever possible. Your tactical options and ability to perceive threats are much greater when you’re outside your vehicle and approaching on foot. Get there safely, park away from the incident, exit quietly and then listen for a moment. Communicate a plan and minimize cross-fire potential.
Fitness: You don’t need to be in perfect shape. But you do need to be in good shape to do your job properly and not put others at risk. Heart attacks continue to be the third leading cause of death in law enforcement line-of-duty deaths. Don’t wait. Start now and accelerate that process through healthier eating and more exercise.
Honor the Fallen: Below 100 trainers believe the best way to honor our fallen is by training the living. The sad truth is that many of our losses, including many during 2016, were preventable and, candidly, they just didn’t have to happen. We all have a responsibility to improve officer safety, both individually and across the profession.
Remember the tenets of Below 100.
- Wear your seatbelt.
- Wear your vest.
- Watch your speed.
- WIN – What’s Important Now?
- Remember: Complacency Kills!