Montgomery officers remember fallen peers, learn how to protect themselves

May 23, 2012

At 9 p.m. Dec. 16, 1928, Patrolman Joseph Asbury Case became the first of 16 Montgomery County police officers to be killed in the line of duty. At 3 p.m. last Thursday, the department honored their sacrifices.

During the ceremony, part of the county’s celebration of National Police Week at the newly dedicated Public Safety Memorial in Gaithersburg, retired Sgt. Edward H. Joyner III spoke of the sacrifices made by fallen officers. He also spoke about the danger police officers face every day.

“It is a constant reminder that life is not always a given, especially when you wear a badge,” Joyner said.

Of the county’s 16 fallen officers, eight died in motor vehicle accidents, six were killed in firearm-related incidents, another officer died of a heart attack while breaking up a fight and the final officer was on foot chasing a drunk driver who had bailed out of his car when another officer hit him with his police cruiser by accident.

Traffic accidents and gunshots are the most common causes of death for police officers nationally, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which tracks officer fatalities annually. The most recent Montgomery officer to be killed in the line of duty was Hector Ayala, who died in a vehicle crash April 4, 2010.

Although the most recent fatal shooting of a Montgomery officer happened more than 30 years ago, statistics indicate violence against police is on the rise nationally. According to a report from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, firearms-related fatalities among law enforcement personnel have increased 70 percent from 2008 to 2011. Last year also marked the first time in 14 years that firearms beat traffic incidents as the leading cause of death for on-duty officers.

“Criminals these days are much more inclined to try to shoot their way out of a situation rather than standing down,” said Steve Groeninger, a spokesman for the memorial group.

Officer Scott Davis, coordinator of the county police’s crisis intervention team, listed a number of factors for increased hostility toward officers. Broad issues such as the weak economy lead to higher stress levels and, often, desperation, Davis said.

Budgets of social programs such as treatment for the mentally disabled also have been slashed, meaning more mentally disabled people are forced onto the streets where potentially dangerous interactions with police can occur, Davis said. Last year, Montgomery officers responded to 4,683 so-called mental health calls, the most in the department’s history, Davis said.

In response to the increasing dangers faced by officers, county police have adopted a more hands-on approach to training, Davis said. Officers run more active-shooter training scenarios than ever before, and officers are learning self-defense styles such as Krav Maga, an aggressive system used by the Israeli Defense Forces, Davis said.

“I don’t think we’re getting more aggressive — I think we’re getting safer,” Davis said. “We don’t start our scenarios just charging at somebody and taking them down; we emphasize techniques to break contact and allow our officers to move to a higher level of force to subdue [the suspect].”

Despite the rise in violence toward police, more recent reports indicate departments are getting safer.

“So far in 2012 officer fatalities are down 44 percent from this point last year, from 73 in 2011 to just 41 this year,” Groeninger said. “It’s really been getting a lot of attention: ‘How can we provide officers the tools they need to enforce the law while also keeping them safe?’”

Barbara Hersberger, a cousin of Patrolman Webb S. Hersperger, who died in a traffic accident in June 1933, said she thinks budget cuts are partially to blame for putting officers at risk.

“In the old days officers rode two to a car, [but] there’s just not enough police officers these days,” she said, referencing budget cuts. “So if one of them gets into trouble, how long would it take for someone else to come back him up?”

Following the ceremony last week, Chief J. Thomas Manger acknowledged Hersberger’s concerns and cited some good news for the department.

“This year, for the first time in four years, we don’t have any new cuts to our budget, and, in fact, we are adding 43 new police officers in the next nine months,” he said. “These cops need to know that, if something were to ever happen to them, their families and loved ones will be taken care of.”

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