After Texas was ranked the deadliest state for peace officers in 2017, the Grayson County Sheriff’s Office and Texas Department of Public Safety, have shed light on the training and tactics their deputies utilize in order to handle potentially life-threatening situations.
According to an annual report on peace officer deaths compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 14 Texas state and local officers died while in the line of duty last year. Texas is followed in the number of officer fatalities by Florida’s nine, New York’s nine and California’s seven. Nationwide, 128 officers died in 2017 — a figure that includes federal officers, but not those serving universities and territorial and tribal communities.
“Obviously it’s not something we want Texas to be a part of, but sadly it is,” Sheriff Tom Watt said.
No officers in Grayson County were among those who died as a result of on-duty activity in 2017, but Watt said his experience in law enforcement aligned with the report’s findings that the use of firearms and traffic-related collisions were the hazards most likely to prove fatal for officers.
“One of the more dangerous calls that you might have is a family violence issue,” Watt said. “The dynamics of that are explosive.”
More officers were fatally shot while responding to domestic disturbances than any other circumstance, the report stated. Watt explained that in addition to maintaining cover, waiting for backup and being aware of where firearms might be kept in a residence, one of the best safety tactics his department uses on such calls is de-escalation. Watt explained that many of his deputies have completed an eight-hour training on de-escalation tactics, which include maintaining distance from agitated subjects, speaking in a manner that is not aggressive and using family or friends who provide a calming presence to communicate with a subject.
“Traditionally, law enforcement has demanded that folks yield to their authority immediately,” Watt said. “When we can get that compliance, that’s what we want, but we’ve got to be smarter in the way we do our business. Not everybody is wired the same. So those de-escalation tactics, we’re starting to really rely upon those.”
Watt explained that Grayson County’s numerous rural communities and the distance between them also presents a challenge in keeping deputies and other officers safe. To compensate, Watt said the sheriff’s office will dispatch its nearest deputies to provide backup when an officer of a city or municipality is needed and vice versa.
“Law enforcement officers face danger daily on the front lines protecting the citizens of Texas,” DPS Staff Sgt. Mark Tackett said. “Troopers receive numerous hours of training on multiple topics including firearms, officer safety, traffic stops and critical incident response during their initial training and as part of continuing education during the course of their career.”
The Grayson County sheriff noted that cooperation and coordination is also key in keeping not just police officers, but all first responders safe when dealing with traffic collisions.
“What you might notice is that on the scene of some accidents, law enforcement and fire services have really gotten together and have tried to provide a safer environment for everyone there,” Watt said. “So it’s not uncommon to see the big ladder trucks blocking the entire scene. We started doing that maybe 15 or 20 years ago.”
But when a police officer conducts a traffic stop, he or she often must do so alone and without the added safety of additional emergency vehicles. To help keep officers safe, the state of Texas enacted the Move Over, Slow Down law in 2003. The legislation requires drivers on Texas roads who are approaching a stopped vehicle with emergency lights to either move over into the next lane or slow down to 20 miles per hour below the speed limit if they can’t change lanes.
Watt explained that police officers are well aware of the danger their work puts them in each day and do all they can to keep themselves and the public safe. The sheriff said he hoped the public would remember that officers must be prepared to respond to life-and-death situations at all times.
“It pervades every part of their life,” Watt said. “What I’d like for the public to know is that when an officer is being as cautious as they can be, sometimes it comes across as them being standoffish or confrontational or rude. We don’t want them to think that. All we’re trying to do is position ourselves to be able to react in the best way.”