Vargas: 2016 was a brutal year of violence against police, but new year brings new hope

By Joe Vargas

For law enforcement officers, 2016 was a disheartening year.

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, 63 officers were killed by gunfire. That is a 52 percent increase over the previous year.

That’s more than one officer being shot and killed every week.

It’s hard to accept, but more than a third of the officers killed were executed in ambushes. People killed police officers simply because they were wearing a badge and a gun. They were not killed for anything they had done. They were killed for what they represented.

Two of these shootings shocked the nation and hopefully gave us pause to reflect on the hateful rhetoric spewed by the Black Lives Matter movement and others.

On July 7 in Dallas, a man targeting police shot and killed five police officers and injured seven more and two civilians before being taken out by a police robot.

Ten days later in Baton Rouge, a suspect shot and killed three officers and injured three others as revenge for the shooting death of a black man by police. He later was shot and killed by a member of the SWAT team.

The incident drew nationwide attention and even caused many of the pundits to take a step back.

According to LESMA, which tracks officers who have been shot by suspects, 275 officers were shot and injured by suspects in 2016. That’s more than five officers a week.

For these officers, it often was a matter of training and sheer luck they didn’t die. Many of the injuries have been career ending and, or course, life changing. For those who believe police officers are too paranoid, the data speaks for itself. It’s not paranoia when the threats are real.

In other major news, officers in Baltimore were found not guilty in the death of Freddie Gray, and prosecutors decided not to pursue charges against the remaining officers. Judge Barry Williams in his finding wrote the court “cannot be swayed by sympathy, prejudice or public opinion.”

There simply was never any evidence presented by the state a crime had ever occurred.

In high-profile police shooting cases in Cincinnati and North Carolina, juries could not reach verdicts against the officers who were arrested. In both cases, mistrials were declared. Critics and activists cried out about a failed justice system and easily swayed jurors.

What few spoke about were the weeks jurors spent listening to “all” the evidence presented. They did not judge based upon hyperbole and public sentiment. They listened, discussed and debated. Despite all the time and effort, they could not come to agreement.

So why couldn’t they reach a verdict? The answer: It’s hard to make a criminal out of a police officer who makes a split-second judgment based upon a suspect’s behavior.

The vilification of police officers continued through most of 2016.

The result is some of the lowest police morale we ever have seen in the profession of policing in 2016. Every workplace study I am familiar with pretty much associates low morale with low productivity.

Are police officers in major cities becoming less productive?

Chicago, Baltimore and other major cities are experiencing unprecedented upticks in homicides. Criminologists and politicians say it’s still too early to associate “depolicing” as the cause. While they debate the issue, people continue to die.

What every police officer would like to hear from political representatives, community leaders and others in 2017 is something simple: Comply with the police and you, more than likely, will never be assaulted, shot or killed. Apparently, it’s politically incorrect to even consider putting some of the responsibility for police use of force on the suspects who resist the police.

Body cameras are continuing to be deployed across the country. The video footage, when released, is often dramatic and disturbing. There is no data that has demonstrated a decrease in police shootings since the introduction of body cameras.

In a Washington Post interview, Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said “the criteria for using deadly force hasn’t changed essentially, so why would the numbers change?”

What does the future hold?

I’m no prognosticator, but I would say there are hopeful signs.

The latest Gallup poll shows a significant increase in police approval ratings over the last year. The speculation: Hearing about cops getting killed for no reason has made many reconsider their opinions.

The new U.S. administration has indicated a desire to move forward with a law-and-order agenda and address the rising crime in metropolitan areas.

What’s for certain is this: If you call 911 in an emergency, police officers will respond. They will put themselves at risk to confront those who would seek to do harm to a stranger.

It happens every day across America, and that is something we should never forget.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com.