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Local law enforcement escape national fatality statistics
Deaths in line of duty up 13 percent, according to report
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In a year that saw a 13 percent increase in police fatalities across the nation, Hall County authorities escaped death and even serious injury in the line of duty.

Across the nation, 173 officers died in the line of duty, up from 153 the year before, according to numbers recently compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. It's one of the deadliest years in recent history.

The nonprofit group also reported that 68 federal, state and local officers were killed by gunfire in 2011, a 15 percent increase from last year when 59 were killed. It marks the first time in 14 years that firearms fatalities were higher than traffic-related deaths. The data shows that 64 officers died in traffic accidents, down from the 71 killed in 2010.

"Officers, by virtue and the nature of the job, are always at risk," Hall County Sheriff's Office Maj. Woodrow Tripp wrote in an email to The Times.

Some calls are riskier than others, he added, but circumstances can always change, too.

The last instance of a Hall County deputy killed on duty was in October 2005 when deputy Tim White was killed in a wreck while responding to an emergency call.

The Gainesville Police Department has only had two officers killed in the line of duty in its history, and none since 1972.

Tripp credits the county's years without a fatality to increased training.

Deputies are required to go through several training scenarios, including the Firearms Training System that gives officers realistic scenarios to determine whether to shoot a target.

"These training scenarios are excellent and have aided officers in their judgment-making processes to react at a split second to use deadly force or an alternative," Tripp said. "What you do in training you do in reality."

In 2011, Hall County deputies were involved in a number of incidents in which their safety was at risk, Tripp said.

Those incidents include a deputy being struck by a car while directing traffic, SWAT officers responding to a gunman barricaded inside his home and a recent high-speed chase across multiple counties.

"The point is that no call is routine and that danger lurks at every turn, but the officer never can truly be at rest because events can change in a second or be a completely boring tour," Tripp said.

Craig Floyd, chairman of the memorial fund, blamed the rise in fatalities on budget cuts to public safety departments. He cited surveys by police groups that showed many cut back on training and delayed upgrading equipment, and referenced a Department of Justice report issued in October that said an estimated 10,000 police officers and sheriff's deputies have been laid off within the past year.

"I'm very troubled that these drastic budget cuts have put our officers at a grave risk," he said. "Our officers are facing a more brazen cold-blooded element and fighting a war on terror, and we're giving them less training and less equipment they need to do their jobs safely."

While Hall County has certainly seen its share of budget cuts in the past year, the sheriff's office has still been able to maintain a fleet of vehicles as well as supply deputies with necessary safety equipment, Tripp said.

Earlier this year, the sheriff's office acquired an armored vehicle for its SWAT unit that has been used twice in hostile situations.

The vehicle decreases exposure of SWAT members to gunmen and officials believe it could have prevented a 2008 incident in which Sgt. Joe Groover was shot by a barricaded gunman during a standoff.

Other equipment that is commonplace in departments are bullet proof vests, bullet proof shields when entering suspicious buildings, Tasers, pepper spray and bean bag rounds fired from shotguns.

The glimmer of good news in the report was the falling number of traffic-related fatalities involving law enforcement officers, the lowest since 2005. Floyd said revamped policies adopted by some departments on police chases and a revived focus on road safety helped bring down the number of those deaths.

"It's perhaps the most preventable death for law enforcement," he said. "Better training and better awareness of the dangers of traffic safety will help to spare more police lives as we move forward."

There were 36 total Hall County deputies involved in wrecks while on duty in 2011. Of those, 15 were not at fault and 17 were at fault. Four of those accidents involved a deer running in front of the vehicle.

While on the radio and searching for an address at night, a deputy backed over a mailbox. Another incident involved a rookie officer responding to an accident with injuries when the officer drove too fast for conditions, rounded a curve and struck several vehicles.

"A common law enforcement phrase is that, ‘If you can't get to the call, you can't help the people that need it.' Slow down and get there," Tripp said. "As with any other job, maturity and experience grows with time."

Officers are required to train on pursuit driving at a state-recognized training facility. Police Officer Standards and Training requires a block of instruction on pursuit and hazardous driving, otherwise an officer can't obtain certification.

"Officers go through a slew of training each year," said Kevin Holbrook, public information officer for the Gainesville Police Department. "Along with the state-mandated training, officers go through training courses with the city."

Of course, no amount of training can eliminate the risk.

"Even with the addition of armored vehicles, nondeadly force equipment, bullet proof vests and helmets, at some point that officer has to interact with the person or persons involved in a crime," Tripp wrote.

Associated Press contributed to this report.