POLICE SAFETY Officers, state address growing concern for officer welfare
by Jessica Loeding
Jun 07, 2011 | 4460 views | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cartersville Police Department officer Mike Bettikofer operates the computer in his patrol car. Computers in patrol cars have been a major contributor to officer safety because they allow instant information on suspects, alerting officers to the potential of danger.
SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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Seventy-eight. When Michael Burlison begins his shift this morning, that will not be the number on his mind. Instead, the Bartow County Sheriff's Office deputy will be focused on making it home to his wife and children to celebrate his 30th birthday.

According to Office Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit dedicated to fallen officers, 78 members of law enforcement have lost their lives in the line of duty -- or from injuries sustained while on the job -- in 2011.

And police shootings in Texas, Missouri and Arizona, along with the loss of an Athens officer in March, have made headlines around the country, driving home just how dangerous keeping the public safe can be.

For Burlison, the risks associated with his profession are simply part of the job.

Increase in officer deaths

According to preliminary statistics released in May by the FBI, 56 law enforcement officers were killed feloniously in the line of duty in 2010 -- a 16.7 percent increase over the 48 slain in 2009.

And 2011 appears to be on track for an even higher number of deaths. According to ODMP, 32 officers have been killed by gunfire this year, a 19 percent increase over last year. The 78 killed in the line of duty is a 5 percent increase over 2010.

Burlison, who has been with the sheriff's office five years, said an officer's death offers others an opportunity to learn. "You take the situation of an officer down and apply it to yourself."

The father of two said he assesses each call differently, and uses the information provided by dispatch to create different scenarios.

"You think about what [the call] could be, how it could go," he said. "[Once there], you try to be aware of the people and where they are.

"Sometimes, no matter what you do, something's going to happen."

Of the 56 felonious deaths, 15 officers were killed during ambushes -- 13 during unprovoked attacks and two due to entrapment or premeditated situations; eight were investigating suspicious persons or circumstances; seven were killed during traffic calls; six interrupted robberies in progress or were pursuing robbery suspects; and six were responding to disturbance calls, four of them being domestic in nature, according to the FBI. Three of the officers interrupted burglaries in progress or were pursuing burglary suspects; three died during tactical situations; two were conducting investigations; one officer was handling or transporting a prisoner; one was killed during a drug-related conflict; and four of the officers were attempting to make arrests for other offenses.

Maj. Mark Givins, head of the BCSO Uniform Patrol Division, said the most dangerous situations his deputies enter tend to be domestic disturbances, armed robbery calls and traffic stops.

"When you have domestic situations ... the environment is already volatile, and our deputies are trained in tactics to diffuse the situation. It works sometimes, sometimes it doesn't," he said.

Givins, a 24-year veteran of law enforcement, said updated training has helped improve officer safety.

"We continually train for various scenarios, and the quality of materials and information used in our instruction has continued to improve," he said. "We use different scenarios, and with traffic, we work on strategies and strive to equip the deputies with up-to-date training. We practice that more than we ever have. The training has proved beneficial several times."

Bartow County last lost an officer -- Boyd Simpson -- on Aug. 29, 1970. Cartersville Police Department has reported only one officer killed in the line of duty -- Chief of Police Joe Ben Jenkins on Sept. 5, 1930. Both were shot.

Along with officer training, CPD and the BCSO have increased safety measures at headquarters.

"We provide a variety of training to aid the officer on the street as well as control access to the facility in which we operate," said CPD Police Chief Tommy Culpepper. "A few years ago, I had a barrier installed at the entrance of the police department and access to our facility is accomplished through electronic measures."

Sheriff Clark Millsap, at the urging of the grand jury, also updated measures at his office, including limited access to his office and the installation of large metal poles in front of the BCSO lobby.

Opportunity around every corner

After more than 22 hours in the car with three area law enforcement officers, it quickly becomes clear how often officers enter potentially dangerous situations. They are called upon to handle everything from loose livestock and funeral escorts to murders and traffic crashes.

On a recent morning, Burlison answers a call to a young man wishing to make a report. The man suffers an apparent mental illness for which he has not taken his medication.

Burlison enters the house without backup, not knowing what he will find once inside. After questioning another resident, Burlison determines there are no weapons and no one is at risk.

When asked if he was nervous going in, Burlison said perhaps a little.

For deputy Megan Kincer, the increase in officer deaths is "scary," but not something that affects her job. "I'm a firm believer, 'When it's your time [to die], it's your time."

Givins is quick to point out that potentially dangerous situations may be infrequent at best.

"You work a 12-hour shift. You may go six months without ever removing your weapon from its holster. Then you may have a night where you have to fight three or four times," he said.

CPD officer Mike Bettikofer believes awareness is key to an officer's safety. And a rainy Saturday spent riding along with Bettikofer proves he misses little.

The 13-year veteran of CPD is in and out of the vehicle, working to make "contacts" in the community. His belief is if residents can put a positive connection with an officer, they are likely to be of help in the future.

"I'd rather shake your hand than take you to jail," Bettikofer said, adding that a bad encounter with an officer can turn a person off to law enforcement. "If you've got one bad apple, it's going to spoil the bunch."

Can government help?

In April, Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law a bill creating a 16-person Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.

"With this council now in place, it is our hope to uncover new approaches to make Georgia communities safer while increasing offender accountability, improving rehabilitation efforts and lowering costs," Deal said in a May press release. "While this effort should ultimately uncover strategies that will save taxpayer dollars, we are first and foremost attacking the human costs of a society with too much crime, too many people behind bars, too many children growing up without a much-needed parent and too many wasted lives."

The commission will study Georgia's criminal justice and correctional system, and research ways to enhance public safety, reduce victimization, hold offenders more accountable, enhance probation and parole supervision, and better manage a growing prison population, according to the release. Its goals will focus on increasing public safety, improving rehabilitation and lowering state expenses.

Local leaders remain skeptical.

"First of all, I favor any improvements to the administration of justice by whatever mechanism it is dispensed," Culpepper said. "I am not sure that a commission of political appointees will really accomplish much in the way of substantive legislative or statutory change. I tend to favor truth in sentencing. I believe that this concept, properly applied, aids in the reduction of the other areas addressed. I believe that a good approach would be to establish a commission comprised of the rank and file of justice system executives to elicit an end-user response."

Givins said he was not familiar enough with the bill to comment, but the idea leaves him wondering how the state would define "reform" and what measures the government would take to implement the changes.

The council will report its findings and recommendations by Nov. 1 to a special committee consisting of a bipartisan, 16-member group of legislators who will then consider legislation for next year's session. The bill expires July 1, 2012.

"It may be that some of these areas are more difficult to change than legislation and popular opinion would lead one to believe," Culpepper said. Some of these areas seem to have potential conflict with one another. How do you reduce victimization? You either address the victim mentality -- personal awareness -- or the victimizer --by incarceration. How can we manage a growing prison population [overcrowding] and at the same time improve rehabilitation -- more services? It will take minds much sharper than mine to resolve these issues and the tentacles to which they are attached."