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Dangers real, but deaths increasingly rare for police officers

By Greg Botelho, CNN
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Chief: Officer deaths 'worst nightmare'
  • 11 police officers have been shot -- including two fatally -- in a recent 24-hour period
  • Still, law enforcement is not one of the nation's most dangerous professions
  • Statistics show the number of police shootings has dropped considerably
  • An expert says a major reason is that police have gotten smarter and safer

(CNN) -- Two Florida police officers died after being ambushed by a wanted criminal, hiding in an attic. One in Indianapolis lapsed into a coma, after being shot during an otherwise routine traffic stop. And then there were the four in Michigan, wounded after a man entered their precincts and began indiscriminately spraying bullets.

The recent rash of police shootings nationwide -- which left two police officers dead and at least nine injured in a 24-hour period Sunday and Monday -- has brought a fresh focus on the dangers of law enforcement.

"You don't often think about what could happen to you in this line of work because if you do, you'd have to say, 'Why am I doing this?'" Sgt. Paul Thompson of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department said on HLN. An Indianapolis police officer, David Moore was critically injured after being shot three times Sunday during a traffic stop.

Still, law enforcement isn't among the top 10 most dangerous professions, according to the latest ranking by the U.S. Bureau of Labor. Fishermen, lumberjacks and construction workers have more dangerous jobs, according to the list.

Moreover, experts note and statistics indicate that police officers today appear appreciably less likely to be killed in the line of duty than they were decades ago.

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"Police shootings are very, very rare events in this country," said Peter Manning, a professor at Northeastern University's College of Criminal Justice. "When they happen together (like this week), it's even rarer."

In 2009, the most recent year for which national statistics are available, the FBI reported 48 law enforcement officers were "feloniously killed" -- marking a significant jump from the previous year, when 41 died by malicious means.

Over the years, the numbers have fluctuated. Still, over time, they do tell a story.

For instance, in the last three years of the 1980s, 74, 78 and 66 law enforcement officers were killed -- compared to 58, 41 and 48 killed annually over the tail end of the 2000s, the most recent decade. Taking the average of those two three-year subsets equates to a roughly 48% decrease in the past 20 years.

Gary Bradford, a retired Tampa, Florida, police officer, said he doesn't "get caught up in trends (because) they really don't matter" to those patrolling the streets. What he said he noticed personally is that "the intensity and the violence increased" in his time on the force, as did the complexity of the job.

Ernie George, who spent 30 years with the West Palm Beach, Florida, police department, likewise thinks that police life has become more dangerous.

"There are more people out there who are bad guys and could care less about killing you," he said. "I don't think the public has a clue as to what law enforcement goes through every day -- the stress they are under or all the bad things they see."

A decrease in law enforcement officers killed doesn't mean the job is getting that much safer or criminals have become less violent toward police. What it may suggest, though, is that law enforcement officers have become smarter.

Manning, the criminal justice professor, cites three major factors in helping keep more officers alive: 1) increased use and proven effectiveness of bulletproof vests; 2) improved education and procedures for hostage and other potentially perilous situations; and 3) the advent and rise of specialized units to deal with the bigger crises.

"We've got much smarter, more savvy officers than ever," he said. "And a police officer really learns to expect anything."

Donald Schweitzer, a former California police officer-turned-attorney, thinks law enforcement will likewise be proactive after the recent shootings, carefully reexamining what happened and trying to figure out how to avoid bloodshed in the future.

"What's more important is that police officers figure out what went wrong, and they (make) changes," he told HLN's Vinnie Politan.

The impact of a police officer being shot goes well beyond revised protocols, experts say: It's personal, not just for law enforcement but for the community at large. That's been evident in massive outpourings of popular support after this week's shootings.

Manning said the reason is that the public tends to feel more vulnerable when those charged with protecting them get hurt. And in the "modern media age, there is an amplification effect" -- with every violent incident being broadcast and publicized in a growing number of ways, prompting fresh conversations and occasionally spawning unfounded fears.

"The shooting of a police officer has ramifications beyond any other occupation," he said. "That's, in part, why it has a ripple effect through society."

For the officers themselves, the job doesn't get any less difficult once the spotlight fades. Nor does the threat of violence.

Bradford saw nine of his colleagues killed between 1982 and 2007, when he was on the Tampa force. After the last one, when two homicide detectives were killed, he told his chief that he "needed a break" from all the pain.

"Those officers that hit the midnight shift -- I assure you, their thoughts and prayers are with those killed," said Bradford, referring to the two officers killed in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Monday. "But guess what -- they're still going to do their job."