Five Maryland police officers died in the line of duty this year, the seventh-highest count among the 50 states, according to a national report released Monday.
Nationwide, 160 officers were killed in 2010, as police fatalities jumped 37 percent after two years of declines, according to preliminary figures released Monday by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Four of the Maryland officers died in traffic collisions, which matched a trend: Crashes accounted for almost half of the nationwide increase, according to the memorial fund, which produces an annual survey of police fatalities.
Craig Floyd, chief executive of the fund, said it's difficult to impress upon officers the need to put safety first when responding to an incident.
"Just in talking to officers, you get the sense that they're worried about every split second when they get a call," he said. "I wish they'd take fewer chances themselves."
As of Monday, Floyd's organization had counted 59 deaths by gunfire — 10 more than in 2009 — including one in Maryland. But that 20 percent increase was eclipsed by a 43 percent spike in the number of traffic-related fatalities, from 51 in 2009 to 73 this year. It was the 13th straight year that vehicle-related incidents were the leading cause of officers' deaths.
Deaths attributed to other causes — including job-related illnesses, beatings and aircraft crashes --- increased from 13 to 28.
Maryland's five law enforcement fatalities in 2010 represented a tragic rebound from a year in which no officers died in the line off duty in the state. The toll was the most since six were fatally injured in 2007 (one of whom died on Jan. 1, 2008). Only six other states have had more police fatalities this year, according the fund.
Each of the four Maryland officers who died on the road was fatally injured after losing control of his vehicle.
Prince George's County Police Cpl. Thomas P. Jensen, 27, died March 9, 10 days after he hit a patch of black ice while responding to a burglary call and crashed into a utility pole in College Park. Montgomery County Police Sgt. Hector Ayala, 31, was killed April 4 when his cruiser hit a tree in Wheaton as he drove to the scene of a reported fight.
Two Baltimore city officers lost their lives in crashes within a month of each other this fall. Officer James E. Fowler III, 61, was traveling to Penn State University for a job-related training course on Sept. 27 when his car left a rain-slicked roadway near Lewiston, Pa. Officer Thomas Portz Jr., 32, died Oct. 20 when his patrol car slammed into a fire truck parked on U.S. 40 in Baltimore while responding to a report of an injury.
Police fatalities on the roads have long been a topic of concern in Maryland, where 25 officers have been killed since 2000 in vehicle crashes — nine more than have been killed by gunshots.
Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, who wrestled with the issue of police driving when he headed the city force, said the high level of traffic-related deaths has a lot to do with "the driving habits of young police officers."
His prescription: more intensive training, refresher course and frequent requalification requirements. "They should take it at least as seriously as firearms training," he said.
Only one Maryland officer was shot to death this year. According to police, Maryland State Police Trooper First Class Wesley Brown, 24, was working a second job providing security at a restaurant in Prince George's County June 11 when a customer he had earlier escorted off the premises returned and shot him without warning.
Floyd, of the memorial fund, said that over the past two years there has been an increase in ambush-style killings of police officers. In many of those cases, more than one officer has been killed by assailants who deliberately targeted law enforcement.
"You're seeing more officers shot and killed by these cold-blooded brazen killers they see every day," he said.
Overall, the 2010 figures are a return to an average toll after a steep decline over the past two years. Last year, in particular, was an unusually safe year for officers as the number of fatalities dipped to 117 — the the lowest level since 1959.
In most recent years, the memorial fund has added 140 to 170 names to its roll of fallen officers. The worst year in recent decades was 2001, when the loss of more than 70 officers in the attacks of Sept. 11 drove the total to 240.
Floyd said the resurgence in deaths could be a reflection of widespread budget cuts by local and state governments that have contributed to a decline in the number of law enforcement officers from 889,000 in 2003 to 707,000 in 2009.
"You look at the fact we are slashing budgets for law enforcement training, equipment and manpower," he said. "All three areas are taking a hit as a result of the downturn in the economy."
Doug Ward, director of the division of public safety leadership at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, called the 2010 increase "troubling" but found no obvious explanation.
"Until you look at each one of these cases, it's hard to know the why," he said.
Ward, a 27-year veteran of the Maryland State Police, said it should be no surprise that traffic fatalities exceeded the deaths by firearms. Gun incidents are relatively rare, he said, and some officers never encounter a shooting incident. Meanwhile, virtually every officer is exposed to potential traffic injuries.
"They're just out there more, and there's more of them out there, so just statistically it's bound to happen," he said.
Most officer fatalities by state
(As of Dec. 27)
Maryland police deaths 2000-2010
(By date of fatal incident; excludes Maryland-based military investigators killed in Iraq)
SOURCE: National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund