|Written by Craig W. Floyd|
He was soon joined by Summerville (SC) Patrolman William B. Bell, 48. Moments later, as they changed the flat tire, a man with no driver's license and a history of seizures slammed his pickup truck into the two officers, killing them both.
Deputy Wright had called his girlfriend, Kim Kite, on the ride home that night. When he told her that he was going to stop and help the woman with the flat tire, Kim tried to talk him out of it, but he was insistent. "He was a very caring person, and he'd do anything for anyone," she said.
Patrolman Bell's son-in-law, Summerville Police Sergeant Doug Wright, echoed that sentiment, saying, "The main thing to remember is that Gene Wright and my father-in-law, William Bell, died doing what they loved. And that was helping people."
According to preliminary figures recently released by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), and the Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS), the same could be said of 145 other officers who died in the line of duty in 2002.
Of the 147 officers killed during 2002, 55 were shot to death; 44 died in automobile accidents; 14 were struck by automobiles while on duty outside their vehicles; eight succumbed to job-related illnesses; seven died in motorcycle accidents; seven were killed in aircraft accidents; three officers drowned; two officers were struck by a train; two officers were beaten to death; two officers were stabbed to death; one officer was killed in a bomb-related incident; one officer was killed by a falling object; and one officer was killed in an accident involving a horse.
The states that suffered most were Texas (15 fatalities), South Carolina (nine fatalities), California (eight fatalities), North Carolina (seven fatalities), Maryland (six fatalities), New York (six fatalities) Arizona (five fatalities), Florida (five fatalities), Illinois (five fatalities), and Missouri (five fatalities). The figures also include 10 federal law enforcement fatalities.
The 147 police deaths last year represent a sharp decline from 2001, when 230 officers lost their lives, including 72 responding to the September 11 terrorist attacks-the deadliest day in law enforcement history. In fact, there has been a steady downward trend in police deaths since the 1970s, when an average of 220 officers died each year. In the 1980s, 185 officers were killed annually, and the death total dropped even lower, to 155 a year in the 1990s. Actually, when factoring in the number serving at the time, law officers are more than three times less likely to be killed in the line of duty today (when one out of about every 5,000 officers is killed) than in 1970 (when one out of about every 1,500 officers was killed).
A number of factors seem to be contributing to this reduction in deaths, including better equipment and the increased use of bullet-resistant vests, improved training, longer prison terms for violent offenders, and advanced emergency medical care.
Still, the 147 law enforcement fatalities last year means that an officer is killed somewhere in America nearly every other day. Two of those deaths occurred on August 29 in Adelphi, Maryland, when Prince George's County (MD) officers, Sergeant James V. Arnaud and Deputy First Class Elizabeth Magruder, were shot and killed while attempting to take a man from his parents' home for psychiatric care. Ironically, they were there to help the man and his family, but sometimes helping others means putting your own life at risk if you are a police officer.
Some of the officers lost last year were killed not because of what they were doing, but because they were cops. Hobart-Lawrence (WI) Police Officer Stephanie Rae Markins was sitting in her patrol car on the side of the road filling out some paperwork with her training officer, Robert G. Etter Jr., when a man driving a pickup truck deliberately rammed their patrol vehicle at 70 miles per hour. The two officers were pronounced dead at the scene.
The death of Chicago Police Officer Benjamin Perez proved that an officer's life is always at risk, no matter what the assignment. While conducting a drug surveillance stakeout on the west side of Chicago, Officer Perez was struck and killed by a train. He and his partner had climbed up a steep embankment to get a better view of the drug activity going on nearby. The two officers were near a commuter train track. Tragically, when one of the trains passed, it created a vacuum and sucked Officer Perez underneath.
Responding to accident scenes may seem tame compared to other law enforcement duties but they, too, can become death traps for a police officer. U.S. Park Police Officer Hakim Farthing was conducting an accident investigation at the scene of a fatal car crash near the Maryland-Washington, D.C. border when a drunken driver under the age of 21 ran through a barrier and struck and killed Officer Farthing.
It is likely that Red Bluff (CA) Police Officer David Mobilio never thought his life would be in danger either when he stopped to fill his gas tank at an unmanned fuel station while on patrol during the early morning hours of November 19. When he failed to answer his radio call officers went to investigate and found his body lying next to his car and his gun on the ground nearby. He had been shot three times from behind and killed. A local businessman described Officer Mobilio as "a gentle giant, larger than life; the kind of police officer everyone wants in their town. But, most important, he was so kind," the man added.
The simple truth is that a police officer never knows when that life-threatening moment might come, but he or she knows that it could come on the very next call. That is why those who serve are true portraits in courage.
Craig W. Floyd is chairman of the National law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Visit www.nleomf.com for more information about law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.