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Mitchell: Even One ‘Line of Duty’ Death Shocks Conscience

Average age: 40. Average time in law enforcement: 12 years, 10 months. Those stats describe the 82 law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty so far this year.

Each one is tragic, but there’s more we need to know. Ask most people — at least those addicted to the 24-hour news cycle — and their impression will be that officer-killings are skyrocketing. Truth is, what’s skyrocketing is news coverage of officers’ deaths. The actual death rate is fairly steady, even declining a bit.

The Officer Down Memorial Page on the Internet is a reliable, non-government site that keeps the tally. According to the information it provides, deaths overall are fewer and deaths by gunfire are down 22 percent. Vehicle fatalities are up.

It has been a really bad year in Mississippi and in our neighboring states of Tennessee and Louisiana. After 2014 during which two Mississippi officers died (one in a wreck and the other in an assault by automobile), there have been five on-duty deaths this year. Gaming Commission Investigator John Gorman was killed in a weapons accident and Corrections Officer Janett Smith and Warren County Deputy Johnny Gatson were killed in wrecks. Most public attention has been directed to the cold-blooded shooting of two Hattiesburg officers, Liquori Tate and Benjamin Deen, during a traffic stop on May 9.

In Louisiana last week, Senior Trooper Steven Vincent was gunned down after a traffic stop, the same fate that was met earlier this month by Shreveport Officer Thomas LaValley. Two New Orleans officers, Darryle Holloway and James Bennett Jr., were shot in May and in June. Another was struck by a car and killed in July.

In Memphis on Aug. 1, the life of Officer Sean Michael Bolton ended much the same way as the lives of Tate, Deen, Vincent, Holloway, Bennett and LaValley.

As a people, we must never forget that how these officers’ shifts ended. Their job centers on keeping our cities, our streets and highways safe for others — and doing their job cost them their lives.
There’s a perception that white officers are under assault by renegade blacks, a perception fed by cold-blooded killings during the summer. There is also a perception that all of black America is or should be rightly in fear of rampant bullying and murders by police.

While many of the deaths of black Americans in custody of police or during responses are as senseless as the officers’ deaths, the numbers just don’t support such conclusions.
In the seven fatal shootings in three states, five officers were white and two were black. That ratio, generally, mirrors the makeup of law enforcement ranks. As for the suspected shooters who have been identified, some are white, some black.

It would be nuts to say that race was not a factor in some of these homicides, that we live in a colorblind society or that residents of black communities have not and do not continue to be victimized by society in general or police officers in particular.

The point is to avoid chalking up the whole series of events to racism. That’s a cowardly explanation when the real problem is an abiding — and fairly even — level of violence all across the nation.
The statistics show it.

Fifteen years ago in the year 2000, 164 officers died in the line of duty. Fifty of them were killed by gunfire. That’s 30 percent.

Last year, 47 of 133 deaths were by gunfire. That’s 35 percent. So far this year, 23 of the 82 deaths have been by gunfire. That’s 28 percent. All pretty much within the same range.

Go back 40 years to 1975 — when there were 245 deaths — and 144 were by gunfire. That’s almost 60 percent.
It’s one of those things. We convince ourselves that law enforcement “back in the day” was pretty much an Andy Taylor/Barney Fife situation. Cops without guns; compliant criminals. It’s just not so.

In 1968, the last year of “The Andy Griffith Show,” 75 officers among the 197 who died in the line of duty were killed by gunfire. The figure, again so far for this year, is 23. It’s 23 too many, but it’s 23.

Law enforcement has been and continues to be an essential public service. It has not suddenly become more perilous than ever, though. Every ‘line of duty’ death should make us pause, if nothing more, and be grateful there are those willing to do it.


Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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