October 9, 2021

Policing is about matters of life and death


Dear PERF Members,

We are living in unprecedented times. By that I mean that 100 years from now, historians will look back on this period and try to explain why the years 2020-21 stood out.

This past week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that 2020 saw the largest increase in the murder rate in modern history. The homicide rate jumped 30% from 2019 to 2020. “It is the largest increase in 100 years,” a CDC official said.  

What happened that made last year so deadly? In city after city, unacceptable levels of violence found their way into the most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Yet where is the outrage? Where is the sense of urgency to stop the killings?

The past two years have been extremely difficult – and deadly – for law enforcement officers as well. In 2020, there were 295 officer fatalities, which is the second-highest number of deaths on record, behind only 1930, according to NLEOMF.

This past Monday, DEA Special Agent Michael Garbo was shot to death on an Amtrak train in Tucson as he was attempting to detain a drug suspect. Also wounded were another DEA special agent and a Tucson police officer who was working on a DEA task force. For DEA Administrator Anne Milgram and Tucson Chief Chris Magnus, it was a gut-wrenching day.

The next day, ATF Special Agent Adam Daniels was critically wounded when he was shot by a man he was trying to arrest in Nashville.

And earlier this month, Sergeant Nick Risner of the Sheffield, AL Police Department was shot and killed in a shootout with a murder suspect that police were pursuing.

On Thursday night, I’ll join fellow police leaders at the Candlelight Vigilhosted by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. This event always gets to me, because as you read the names of officers who died in the line of duty, you look out at the audience sitting quietly in the night, and you see many children and single parents. It’s stunning as you see these families, each with a missing part.

All of this got me thinking that at the end of the day, policing is about matters of life and death. For chiefs and other police leaders, their job requires an incredible amount of emotional stability. They never know whether the next day might bring a tragedy where an officer dies in the line of duty, or an officer dies by suicide, or an officer has to use lethal force.  

And for the cops, they never know when something routine might suddenly become dangerous. Mundane acts like walking up to a car or knocking on a door can turn deadly. We’ll never forget the story of Ashley Guindon, a 28-year old officer in Prince William County, VA, who was fatally shot on her first day on the job in 2016 when responding to a domestic violence call. Two other officers were wounded, and the suspect’s wife was found dead inside the house. Her first day as a cop, and she is killed. How do you explain that to her family?

While policing is a dangerous profession, the last two years have been especially perilous.

But hopefully we are coming out of the absolute worst time of our lives, more resilient and thankful that we have been able to overcome new obstacles. Policing will always be inherently dangerous, and yet we expect cops to risk their lives to save others, because if they don’t, who will? It’s the reflex of stepping up when others step back. Of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Of making every moment matter, and knowing that being a cop is a privilege and an honor that we should never lose sight of.