Vargas: Police officers are shot every day, but few of us know their stories

By Joe Vargas

On Feb. 6, 2018, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy Steven Belanger died from a gunshot wound to the head. It was a bit different from other officers killed in the line of duty. You see, Belanger was shot 24 years ago, during a car stop.

On Dec. 10, 1994, Belanger made a car stop on a wanted assault suspect in Rowland Heights. As he was detaining the two occupants of the car, a friend of the wanted suspect rode by on a skateboard and shot Belanger in the head and foot.

The shooter later killed himself.

For the next 24 years, Belanger used a wheelchair and was under constant medical care. At the time of the shooting, Belanger was married and had a 15-month-old daughter.

We hear a lot about officers being killed in the line of duty, but that number pales in comparison to the number of those who have been shot and wounded while serving. Many struggle the rest of their lives.

No one is keeping track of the number of officers shot every year. One organization, the last few years, has tried to tally the numbers. LESMA (Law Enforcement and Supporters for Media Accountability) is one group that has tried to capture the numbers.

According to their records, 450 police officers were shot and wounded in 2016. This doesn’t include officers stabbed, run over, struck with a weapon, or just shot at.

Take, for example, Officer Jackie Tucker of the Saraland (Ala.) Police Department. She was responding to a domestic violence call in December 2016 when she was shot in the head. One year laterafter months of rehabilitation, she is finally home. She may never walk again.

Officer Tom Wagstaff of the Independence (Missouri) Police Department was shot while investigating a burglary in March 2017. His injuries required months of rehabilitation and he is still using a wheelchair. He returned home in December.

In December 2017, Officer Ryan O’Connor of the Arnold (Missouri) Police Department was transporting a burglary suspect when he was shot in the head. He is still in rehabilitation. His family recently released video of his recovery efforts. It’s very clear that both the officers and their families are dramatically impacted.

Ryan's Journey

Update from the O'Connor family…We've come so far in the last 57 days. This video is just a small reflection of our journey so far. We continue to celebrate each small victory that comes our way. This week we have celebrated Ryan puckering up for sweet kisses and successfully catching a small nerf ball with his left hand. As we continue our week full of intense therapy, we anticipate and look forward to sharing more triumphs. Despite our distance from home we still feel all the love and encouragement you continue to send our way. Thanks to each of you for supporting our family in so many ways. We are touched by your thoughtfulness and generosity.

Posted by Arnold MO Police Department on Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How many similar stories exist around the country? We really don’t know for sure. Seems like we know the story of every person shot by police officers, but very little on the number of police officers who have been shot.

What we do know is that the risk officers take every day is very real. For every officer killed in the line of duty, there are multitudes more who struggle every day to recover from significant injuries.

People often complain that police officers in the United States are hyper vigilant, or are too paranoid. Just remember, it’s not paranoia if the threats they face are real.

Joe is a retired captain. He can be reached at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com.