WASHINGTON – A record number of fatal traffic incidents and a double-digit spike in shooting deaths led to one of the deadliest years for law enforcement officers in more than a decade.

With the exception of 2001, which saw a dramatic increase in deaths because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 2007 was the deadliest year for law enforcement since 1989, according to preliminary data released jointly by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and Concerns of Police Survivors.

The report counted the deaths of 186 officers as of Dec. 26, up from 145 last year. Eighty-one died in traffic incidents, which the report said surpassed their record of 78 set in 2000. Shooting deaths increased from 52 to 69, a rise of about 33 percent.

“Most of us don’t realize that an officer is being killed in America on average every other day,” said Craig W. Floyd, chairman of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

Department of Public Safety Sgt. Chris Jones, who supervises the Highway Patrol office in Ellis County, said safety is the No. 1 concern emphasized in the agency’s extensive field-training program.

“Our whole purpose is safety and protecting the public,” Jones said. “We don’t want our officers hurt. We don’t want the public hurt.”

The training is ongoing and videotapes from traffic stops are continually reviewed by the DPS, he said, listing some of the procedures as not standing between vehicles unless absolutely necessary, leaving the subject of the traffic stop inside his or her vehicle if possible, turning the patrol unit’s front tires to the left on a stop and conducting a stop in the safest possible place.

“We’re constantly reminding them (the troopers) of the policies that are in place,” Jones said. “We watch the videotapes and tell them it wasn’t a safe stop. We preach this and we hope they learn that a traffic stop is not worth getting injured over. We want them to try to be as safe as possible.”

On traffic stops, two troopers will typically be on hand: one for the stop itself and the other for additional enforcement. That additional enforcement includes watching for motorists not obeying the law to either move over a lane or slow down if staying in the lane next to the traffic stop.

“That’s been a law now for over two years (to move over or slow down), so we try to enforce that as much as possible,” Jones said, noting troopers also are instructed to “always be cognizant of the area” where they are working.

“We want to reduce the number of incidents,” Jones said, agreeing with the statistics that show traffic collisions and routine law enforcement action as representing the greatest risk for law enforcement officials.

Officer fatalities have generally declined since peaking at 277 in 1974, the report said. Historically, officers have been more likely to be killed in an attack than to die accidentally and shootings outnumbered car crashes. But those trends began to reverse in the late 1990s. This year, about six of every 10 deaths were accidental.

Floyd credited technology improvements with helping reverse the trend. Safety vests save lives and non-lethal devices such as electric stun guns prevent some fatal encounters, he said. He attributed the spike in shooting deaths to the increase in violent crime nationwide.

“Law enforcement is the front line against violent criminals,” Floyd said.

Of the 81 traffic deaths this year, 60 officers died in car crashes, 15 were hit by cars and six died in motorcycle crashes.

Police departments have worked to limit high-speed chases and only seven of the car crashes were attributed to such pursuits, Floyd said. Crashes involving a single police cruiser responding to a call were far more common, he said.

After traffic crashes and shootings, physical causes such as heart attacks were the leading cause of death, contributing to 18 fatalities. Other causes of death included smaller categories such as airplane and boating accidents, for an additional 18 fatalities.

22 Texas officers killed

Texas led the nation with 22 fatalities followed by Florida (16), New York (12), and California (11). The report includes the death of 17 federal law enforcement officers, including five Air Force Office of Special Investigations agents killed in two bombings in Iraq.

The report counted six times in which multiple officers were shot and killed in the same incident, such as the September shooting in Odessa, Texas that left three officers dead while responding to a domestic violence call. Domestic violence and traffic stops were the circumstances that most commonly led to fatal police shootings this year, the report found.

The average age of officers who died in 2007 was 39. Most were men and had served an average of about 11 years in law enforcement.

Ellis County memorial

Ten names are listed on an Ellis County memorial that honor those who have given their lives in the line of duty while serving local law enforcement agencies. The memorial was created in 2003 and is located in the pocket park at the corner of Franklin and College streets, across from the courthouse.

Listed on the memorial are Joseph C.R. Bullard (Ennis city marshal), John H. Spalding (Waxahachie city marshal), Thomas D. Conger (Ellis County constable, Pct. 7, Red Oak), Jesse Claude White (deputy sheriff Ellis County), James Benjamin Wicker (Ellis County constable, Pct. 2, Ferris), Travis Raburn Locker (Texas Department of Public Safety, Ellis County trooper), Arthur James Robertson (deputy sheriff, Ellis County), George William Raffield Jr. (Midlothian Police Department), Lt. Jeffrey Lee Springer (Waxahachie Police Department) and Harry Marvin “Marty” Steinfeldt III (Ferris Police Department).

Steinfeldt’s was the most recent deaths of those listed on the memorial. The 28-year-old, two-year veteran of the Ferris Police Department was killed Oct. 6, 2002, after responding to a call about a man with a gun at a Ferris convenience station. An innocent bystander also was shot and killed during the incident, which sent Kent Williams Sprouse, then age 31, to death row, where he remains today.

Daily Light Managing Editor JoAnn Livingston contributed to this report.