Nationwide, 128 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty in 2017 — the lowest level in four years, according to a preliminary report released Thursday by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), a nonprofit group that tracks fatalities.
No police officers from Utah were killed in 2017, down from three on-the-job deaths in 2016. Also, no Utah officers were killed in 2015.
“I think there’s a very keen awareness of the risks involved and especially recently, the elevated risks involved,” said retired Salt Lake City Police Captain Judy Dencker, said of the decrease in officer fatalities. “It speaks for the quality of training that officers are being given by their departments.”
This year saw a reversal of a three-year trend in which the number of officer deaths had increased across the nation, according to the NLEOMF report.
In addition to Utah, the District of Columbia and 13 other states had no officer fatalities in 2017. However, 14 police officers died in Texas, nine died in California and nine died Florida. Seven died in New York. Five federal, three tribal, and two university officers also were killed this year.
The NLEOMF report breaks down the 128 deaths into the follow categories:
47 traffic-related deaths
44 gun-related deaths
20 job-related illnesses led to death (including 10 heart attacks)
7 officers beaten to death
5 officers drowned
2 boat-crash deaths (during training)
2 helicopter-crash deaths
“A lot of that is out of our control,” noted Kaysville Police Chief Solomon Oberg. “You can only do so many things to approach a house right. There are some things you just can’t avoid — ambushes or assaults.”
But police departments focus on what they can control, and the number of officers killed has dropped over the past few decades, from a peak of 280 deaths in 1974.
One thing officers can control is wearing their seat belts, “which you think is a no-brainer these days,” Oberg said. “But it’s tough with officers because they’re in and out of their car a lot.”
There is also a move toward mandatory body armor, which, in some parts of the country, departments have done a poor job providing, he said. Or, departments have officers wearing expired or deteriorated body armor.
“I know that’s a challenge for all police departments because that’s an expensive program,” Oberg said.
Traffic crashes killed the most police officers in 2017, which Oberg said may be because officers get into a comfort zone.
“We start thinking we’re not in danger, we’re not facing someone who’s trying to kill us and we get focused on other things,” he said.
Small things, such as requiring that officers wear reflective gear can help prevent some traffic tragedies, he said.
And one of the newer focuses among police departments has been an emphasis on wellness — manage stress, keeping blood pressure down and processing horrific on-the-job episodes with the help of counselors.
“We’re trying to push more of that with our officers, to maintain healthy lifestyles and weight and exercise,” Oberg said. “Again, that’s something we can have some control over.”
Also, law enforcement has been trying to strengthen their relationship with the public for years, said Utah Attorney General Special Agent Patty Reed.
Training and awareness has helped keep law enforcement alive, she said, but it doesn’t reduce the risk.
“Last year was a bad year for us,” said Reed, noting that law enforcement deaths in the state spiked to three deaths in 2016.
• On Nov. 22, 2016, 31-year-old Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Eric Ellsworth died when he was hit by a vehicle while directing traffic around a low-hanging power line in Box Elder County.
• On Nov. 6, 2016, West Valley City Officer Cody Brotherson, 25, died when he was hit by three teens driving a stolen car as Brotherson attempted to lay tire spikes to stop the car.
• On Jan. 17, 2016, Unified Police Douglas Barney was shot and killed in a confrontation with a fugitive parolee who was fleeing the scene of a car crash in Holladay.
“You can train and train and train,” Dencker said. “But you can’t train for everything because there’s always something out of the norm or out of what you have trained for.”
In the past 10 years, 12 Utah law enforcement officers have died.
2016: 3, Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Eric Ellsworth, West Valley City Police Officer Cody Brotherson, Unified Police Officer Douglas Barney
2014: 1, Utah County Sheriff’s Sgt. Cory Wride
2013: 1, Draper City Police Sgt. Derek R. Johnson
2012: 2, Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Aaron Beesley, Ogden Police Officer Jared Francom
2010: 4, Kane County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Harris, Bureau of Indian Affairs Officer Joshua Yazzie, Sevier County Sheriff’s Sgt. Franco Aguilar, Millard County Sheriff’s Deputy Josie Greathouse Fox
2008: 1, North Salt Lake Police Officer Charles Skinner