Video: Cops in the crosshairs

By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 7/19/2007 4:54:25 PM ET 2007-07-19T20:54:25

Police officials and law enforcement groups Thursday blamed a sharp increase in the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty on more violent criminals who have access to deadlier weapons.

Statistics released Thursday showed that 101 local and federal law enforcement officers died on duty in the first half of the year, 31 more than had died at the same time last year. It was the first time in three decades that the toll had reached more than 100.

“Every assignment that a police officer is on is potentially life-threatening,” said Craig Floyd, chairman of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a nonprofit group that compiled the statistics with the police advocacy group Concerns of Police Survivors. “And unfortunately, for the first six months of this year, it’s been particularly deadly for our police officers.”

Floyd called the statistics “very alarming” and “somewhat puzzling, quite honestly, because over the last 30 years we’ve seen a downward trend in the number of officers’ being shot.”

The memorial fund annually releases the half-year study, which NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams said was considered highly reliable by law enforcement agencies.

Nearly half of the officers died in fatal traffic-related incidents, but 39 of them were shot to death, a 44 percent rise over the number shot to death by the same point last year. Floyd tied that increase to a rising number of officers on the street responding to more violent crimes, many of them domestic disturbances.

“Often, alcohol or drugs are involved, and a high rate of emotion is involved,” Floyd said in an interview with MSNBC. “It’s a very volatile situation. A police officer responds trying to keep the peace, and oftentimes they become the targets of this violence themselves.”

Lapse of assault weapons ban cited
Local and federal law enforcement officials told NBC News that criminals were more likely to use high-powered semiautomatic pistols and handguns today.

Some of those weapons, like the widely feared Intratec Tec-9, were banned until 2004, but they became legal when Congress refused to extend the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, even though President Bush, an opponent of gun control, promised to sign an extension.

Semiautomatic firearms — including the previously banned assault-style guns often misleadingly equated with “assault weapons,” which remain illegal — boast higher-capacity magazines than standard revolvers, and their trigger mechanisms allow users to fire off more rounds in a shorter period of time.

The study did not examine how many of the police officers killed this year were shot with weapons that were legalized three years ago, but the study and figures compiled by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics suggest a statistical correlation.

The 39 officers killed in the first half of 2007 exceeds the 36 officers shot to death in all of 2004, the last year the ban was in effect. More broadly, firearm-related crime rose in 2005, the first year after the semiautomatic weapons became legal again, after having declined every year since the ban took effect in 1994.

“We’ve always had lots of guns,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Police Chief Darrel Stephens, president of the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association. None of the department’s officers were killed by gunfire last year, but six have been gunned down since Jan. 1.

“What we’ve seen is people shifting from revolvers to automatic weapons,” Stephens said. “Rather than six shots or five, they have 14 or 20.”

Floyd said police countermeasures had not yet caught up to the increased firepower of criminals on the street.

“Bullet-resistant vests are designed to stop normal handgun ammunition,” he said. “Criminals are getting their hands on high-powered assault weapons, and those weapons pose a great danger to police because their soft-body armor won’t protect them, in most cases.”

Semiautomatics used against officers
All but one of the 101 officers who died in the line of duty were men. They averaged 37 years of age and had just more than 10 years of experience. After traffic-related incidents and gunfire, a small number of other deaths were attributed to work-related illnesses, drownings and miscellaneous other incidents.

Texas, with 13, had the most officers killed in the first half of the year, the report showed. North Carolina had eight, and New York had six. Ten of the officers were members of various federal law enforcement agencies.

Semiautomatic weapons have been implicated in several recent shooting deaths of law officers.

The report was released a day after hundreds of people gathered in Brooklyn to mourn the death of Russell Timoshenko, 23, a New York police officer who died Saturday after he was shot while making a routine traffic stop last week. A 24-round semiautomatic pistol was found in the stolen car Timoshenko had stopped, police said.

In May, an officer was shot and killed in a confrontation with a man at a church in Moscow, Idaho; investigators found shell casings fired from two semiautomatic weapons. Baltimore police said one of their officers was shot and killed in January with a stolen semiautomatic gun.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank said stricter gun control laws were needed.

“We need to work at the front end and make sure we do all we can to extend the number of illegal guns,” Burbank said in an intervew with MSNBC.

“A person who’s willing to commit some sort of aggravated crime with a firearm is certainly willing to be involved with a police officer using that same firearm,” he said. “So we’re seeing some very tragic incidents where people that have really no reason to have a firearm at their disposal ... now have firearms in their hands again, and they’re using them in some very violent acts.”

The National Rifle Association has opposed reinstating the 1994 ban, pointing to a 2003 study by the Congressional Research Service that found that the average number of rounds fired in crimes involving firearms like those covered by the measure was lower than in those using revolvers. Wounds were also less likely to be fatal than those involving revolvers, the study found.

“The guns that [the 1994 measure] temporarily banned — very widely used for target shooting, hunting and home protection — are still used in only a small percentage of crime,” the association’s Institute for Legislative Action said in a statement.

NBC’s Pete Williams and MSNBC’s Peter Alexander and Chris Jansing contributed to this report.


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