5:15pm

Tue March 22, 2011
Around the Nation

'Keep Them Safe': Feds Seek To Stem Police Deaths

Justice Department leaders met in Washington on Tuesday to talk about an alarming increase in the number of law enforcement officers dying in the line of duty.

It's the second year in a row the rate of fatalities has risen sharply, and the federal government is asking what it can do to help.

For Attorney General Eric Holder, the issue has hit home. Holder has attended memorial services for officers killed in the line of duty three times already this year.

Two deputy U.S. Marshals were shot by fugitives, and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was run off the road and ambushed in northern Mexico.

Holder's aides say the toughest part of the attorney general's job is making phone calls to the mothers of officers who died.

'Simply Unacceptable'

At a meeting with more than two dozen police chiefs from cities such as Philadelphia, New York and Washington on Tuesday, Holder said enough was enough.

"These numbers are simply unacceptable," he said. "2010 really marked the deadliest year for law enforcement in nearly two decades, and that's obviously very worrisome. But this year we are unfortunately on track to exceed the numbers we saw last year."

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a clearinghouse on officer fatalities, said 49 federal, state and local officers have died so far in 2011. Almost half have been victims of gunfire.

"It's certainly a sad situation and a tragic one at that," says Steve Groeninger, who works at the fund. "Whether it's a trend, I think it might be a little bit premature to say."

Analysts said there's no single reason to explain why so many police officers and federal agents are dying on the job. But the Justice Department is stepping in to offer some help.

Looking For Solutions

Holder is directing all 93 top federal prosecutors to meet with police in their states. He's asking the prosecutors to reach out to identify "the worst of the worst."

Those are people who cycle in and out of prison on state or local charges. It's possible, police chiefs and Justice Department leaders say, that some of those repeat offenders could face federal charges that carry longer prison sentences.

"It will be a priority for every United States attorney in this country to have that kind of interaction with their state and local counterparts to make sure that we are doing all that we can to keep law enforcement agents, keep them safe," Holder said.

Last fall, the Justice Department launched a grant program to train police to anticipate and survive a violent attack. They're asking Congress for $3.5 million to expand in 2012.

Groeninger says budget-minded governments need to be careful not to cut too much from police and fire departments.

"You know, our police and our fire and EMS, our first responders, we have to be sure we're giving them all the tools that we can so that they can do their jobs as effectively as possible," he said.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based group that advises police departments, said the meeting was useful because it represented a cross-section of law enforcement experience.

"It was the first time I can remember the attorney general of the United States convening a group that included major city police chiefs and the FBI director, DEA, ATF and the Marshals," he said, "and really asking for suggestions on what could be done." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.