California leads nation in cop fatalities, but job has gotten safer
In Sacramento County, 36 peace officers have died in the line of duty since 1850
When news spread that two sheriff’s deputies from neighboring counties had been struck down by gunfire last month, it confirmed every cop’s nightmare scenario and put California at the top of a very undesirable list.
The October 24 deaths of Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy Danny Oliver and Placer County sheriff’s investigator Michael David Davis Jr.—allegedly killed by an armed assailant with multiple aliases and a lengthy criminal past—agonized a fraternal organization that has bid goodbye to 97 of its own this year so far, according to the volunteer-operated Officer Down Memorial Page website, which tracks on-duty deaths around the nation.
The state with the most officer casualties this year is California, which suffered 14 losses as of October 29. That’s when a 45-year-old Pomona police officer died of a shotgun wound he sustained a day earlier, when he was first through the door serving an arrest warrant on an accused motorcycle gang member.
The state hasn’t lost this many officers since 2008, and hasn’t led the nation in this grim category since 2006, when 17 California cops expired in the field. The state also claimed that infamous title a year earlier with 18 officer casualties.
Of the estimated 1,578 California peace officers who perished in the line of duty, 45 percent died as a result of gunfire, a figure that notches up to 47.6 percent if you include accidental discharges, a review of Officer Down data shows. Another 22.5 percent suffered fatal injuries from automobile or motorcycle accidents, while 10.4 percent died as a result of a vehicular pursuit or assault.
“Automobile accidents are a major, major factor in deaths,” said Sacramento State criminal justice professor William Vizzard, a former cop himself.
Though widely known, the dangers of the job have become less fatal than they used to be. Last year, “only” 105 cops died on the job. With any luck, the nation will dodge the century mark for the first time in 71 years, when 91 officers perished in 1943.
Such is the goal of the Below 100 campaign, a nationwide training initiative that focuses on situational awareness, law enforcement culture and safety equipment to reduce the number of on-duty deaths.
Vizzard and law professor Michael Vitiello say there are multiple reasons for the drop in officer casualties, including a sharp decline in crime rates and improvements to medical care, body armor, field training and automobile safety.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, nobody had body armor,” Vizzard said.
The bloodiest decade for authorities was the 1970s, when an average of 234 officers died each year. The nation has reached such casualty figures only once since then, when 242 officers fell in 2001. Seventy-two died as a direct result of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Counterbalancing this data-driven positive trend, however, is the prevalence of semiautomatic small arms firepower among those most likely to shoot at cops, Vizzard noted. “The one thing that has gotten worse is the weaponry that officers face,” he said.
In Sacramento County, 36 peace officers have died in the line of duty since 1850, according to a review of Officer Down data, largely as a result of gunfire. Elsewhere in the region, Placer County has lost 13 officers, San Joaquin County has surrendered 27, Yolo County six and El Dorado County three.
The deaths of Oliver and Davis are the latest additions to this sad tally.
Oliver was the first to fall—shot in the forehead while approaching an occupied vehicle in the parking lot of a dingy north Sacramento motel the morning of October 24. By the time Davis and his partner spotted the two suspects’ stolen vehicle a couple hours later in Auburn, both men knew of their colleague’s fate, and also of the wounded bystander who resisted being carjacked by the fugitive pair.
The armed assailant, initially identified as Marcelo Marquez, is said to have sprayed gunfire from an AR-15 rifle, striking both investigators and mortally wounding Davis, who later died at a hospital. Marquez’s wife and alleged co-conspirator, 38-year-old Janelle Marquez Monroy, was arrested at the scene, though Marquez—later identified by federal immigration authorities as Luis Enrique Monroy-Bracamonte—slipped away.
The killings underlined the perils of a job that has endured various forms of criticism this year; including the shooting of unarmed subjects in Ferguson, Mo.
During a solemn press conference following Monroy-Bracamonte’s arrest, Placer County Sheriff Ed Bonner reflected on his officers’ restraint, even as many civilians pressed authorities to take matters into their own hands on social media.
“I think there’s those people who would say, ’Well, you know what, I wish you’d killed him,’” he was quoted as saying. “No, that’s not who we are. We are not him.”