Killed in the line of duty

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

THEIR AVERAGE AGE was 41, their average length of service was nearly 12 years and, on average, each left behind two children. They were the 154 men and six women, all law enforcement officers, who died in the United States in the line of duty this year. This was a startling increase over last year, and a reminder of the dangers faced each day by hundreds of thousands of federal and local officers. The nation they serve too often takes them, and the risks they encounter, for granted.

Preliminary data released this week by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a nonprofit that tracks police deaths, showed a 37 percent increase in line-of-duty deaths over the 117 officers killed in 2009. Tragically, the number became outdated as soon as it was released because there have been at least two deaths this week. Locally, the District had one death, Maryland five and Virginia four last year. The number of deaths is particularly disturbing coming after last year's 50-year low, and at a time when violent crime is reported to be down. Traffic fatalities were the leading cause, with 73 officer deaths, while firearm fatalities jumped 20 percent from 49 deaths last year to 59 in 2010. Most alarming were the incidents in which multiple officers were gunned down. These so-called cluster killings accounted for nearly 20 percent of all the fatal shootings.

A variety of explanations have been offered for the rise in deaths, from slashed budgets that have fewer police working longer hours to more distracted and dangerous drivers. Although crime is on the decline, fund chairman Craig W. Floyd spoke of the existence of criminals who don't think twice - indeed, are even eager - to kill an officer of the law. Hence, the chilling case in August in the Alaskan village of Hoonah, where two officers having a casual conversation were fatally ambushed; or the June incident in Tampa, where two police officers were killed during an early-morning traffic stop.

Nothing is ever routine about police work. Just ask the families of those who lost loved ones. In the District, that would be the family of Officer Paul Dittamo; in Maryland, Prince George's Cpl. Thomas P. Jensen, Montgomery County Officer Hector Ayala, Baltimore officers James E. Fowler III and Tommy Portz, and Maryland State Trooper Wesley Brown; in Virginia, Richmond Sheriff's Deputy Caroline Green, Tazewell County Sheriff's Deputy Shawnelle Hess, Spotsylvania County Sheriff's Deputy Dean Ridings and Virginia State Trooper Mark D. Barrett.


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