Every law enforcement officer has a range of different duties, but both arrest and search warrants must be executed in most positions. This involves confronting a suspect directly … and one cannot dodge the inherent danger in serving any summons in the field.
In Florence, South Carolina, seven law enforcement officers recently faced this danger. They were attempting to serve a search warrant at an upscale neighborhood residence as part of a sexual assault investigation. After one of the deputies knocked on the door, resident Frederick Hopkins responded with gunshots, leading to a two-hour standoff. Seven officers were shot, one of whom died from his injuries.
“Fire was being shot all over. The way this suspect was positioned, his view of fire was several hundred yards. So he had an advantage,” said Florence County Sheriff Kenney Boone to reporters.
With the current feelings of mistrust and animosity that some political groups such as Black Lives Matter currently have regarding the police, it is a good time to remind ourselves that thousands of officers are still out there every day, confronting crime with the aim of protecting the public, despite personal safety risks.
When an arrest warrant is served, the suspect knows that he or she is going to jail; subjects named on a warrant are unable to talk their way out of arrest, so they often attempt to fight or flee. A judicial order commands any officer that comes in contact with the named person on a warrant must take that suspect into custody. Search warrants are similar and the occupant of a dwelling knows the police will force the door open if needed. If there is contraband or wanted suspects inside, there is a high risk of a violent confrontation.
As illustrated by the incident in Florence, officers are easy targets during warrant services. They have few options for cover, and someone must knock on the door. Many times, there is a window near the door, exposing the officer to danger. Suspects can be unpredictable. Some might cooperate, but others might fight or run away. No situation is the same, except for the possibility of violence to occur.
Police deaths have been tracked since 1791, when one officer lost his life, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. The highest number of law enforcement deaths occurred in 1974 when 284 officers died in the line of duty. From 1967 to 1984, 3,903 officers died doing their job. With so many officers losing their lives, a new emphasis was placed on officer safety.
The 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio was a landmark step forward in police safety. Cleveland Detective Martin McFadden was on patrol in a beat when he noticed two men walking back and forth, looking in the window of a store approximately 24 times. McFadden followed the two around the corner where they met with a third male subject. The officer identified himself and began patting down the suspects. He found pistols and arrested the men, who were charged with carrying concealed weapons. The defense argued that McFadden had violated the suspects’ privacy; the case went to the Supreme Court where it was ruled that there was no Fourth Amendment violation due to articulable reasonable suspicions that McFadden was able to describe, and because the officer had simply patted down the outer layer of clothing.
Terry v. Ohio was a small step toward officer safety because officers were able to locate illegal weapons on suspects without search incident to arrest, which means searching a suspect after taken into custody. Because the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement can conduct a search of a suspect’s outer clothing without a warrant, an officer is able to ensure the suspect won’t quickly pull out a gun and shoot them. If the officer is able to find the weapon, any threat of violence threat is lessened.
Eventually, departments began to emphasize the protection of officers doing their jobs. In 1976, Kevlar was deemed to improve safety for officers and became more common on patrol. Bullet-resistant vests have saved over 3,000 officers since 1987.
A law enforcement officer’s job is never 100% safe. Men and women put on a uniform that stands for honor, integrity, and bravery. It also places a bull’s eye on their back for criticism, hatred and physical harm. They do it in spite of the dangers, in order to protect and serve.