Death happens. Accidents can happen anywhere. Anyone could be killed on the clock at any occupation. But being a cop is different. It’s one of the few occupations where the workers are targeted for harm on purpose. Being shot at with malice is a different kind of danger than anything facing a Cape Cod fisherman or an Alaskan gold miner.
Nationally, a total of 1,466 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty during the past 10 years, an average of one every 60 hours according to National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund. Some say officers around the country are being targeted, but Des Moines hasn’t lost an officer to gunfire since the 1970s.
Des Moines Police Officer Jason Hemsted is from the south side of Des Moines. A graduate of Lincoln High School, he’s 35 years old and has been married for 15 years. He has five kids and previously worked as an arborist before joining the force in 2007.
When asked what the No. 1 threat to police officer safety is, Hemsted doesn’t hesitate.
“Gunfire,” he said. “That’s my biggest concern. Certain areas of the body, if they get hit, the chance of survival is next to zero.”
Hemsted recalls being in the line of fire two years ago, and it’s an experience he’d like to forget.
“There was a shooting at (Southwest Ninth Street and) Creston Avenue with an AR 10,” he remembers. “(The shooter) shot a good 15 rounds.”
Hemsted remembers he could hear the bullets whizzing by his head, missing by what seemed like inches.
“I’m trying to find my partner. I’m trying to find the bad guy. It was a mess,” he said. “We were the first officers at the scene. I heard the glass panes breaking over my head. The shooter only missed us by 3 feet.”
The shooter ended up being taken down by another officer, and Hemsted was unharmed, but it left an impression.
“There are a lot of people out there with large guns,” said Hemsted.
Waukee Police Chief John Quinn said threats vary greatly based on many variables, including the geography and location of the agency. He said each agency has a unique set of factors, but the threats in Waukee are different than those faced by officers in Des Moines.
“In Waukee, we don’t even have riot gear,” he said.
The chief explained that the leadership at all the local agencies is trying to accomplish transparency in policing operations in an attempt to build confidence in services.
Des Moines Police Department Sgt. Paul Parizek points out that threats to police safety are the same threats faced by society at large, whether it’s drug abuse, domestic violence or mental health.
“One of the main differences is when we hear gunfire, we turn and run toward it,” he said.
The DMPD recently announced that its officers are expected to be equipped with body cameras by June 2016. The cameras are expected to cost more than $1 million, but public pressure for the tool is great, and the department is nearly unanimously in favor of it as well.
“For the most part, they’re great,” said Hemsted. “It’ll be revealing of what we deal with on a regular basis, and I think it has the potential to boost our image back up again in the minds of the public. The potential error is if that body camera takes the place of a full investigation.”
He said cameras can mislead at times based on lighting and other factors. He’s seen videos of shootings from two angles — one which made the shooting look justified, and in the other angle, the opposite. Cameras can be imperfect.
“They should never take the place of a complete and thorough investigation,” he said.
The Waukee Police Department is already equipped with body cameras, and Waukee Chief John Quinn said it’s going “fantastic” so far.
“The officers love them,” he said. “It’s something that protects the officer and the citizens.”
“They’re one of the best things to happen to modern policing,” he said.
Other safety equipment
Hemsted said that what most people refer to as a “bulletproof vest” is actually a bullet “resistant” vest, which can’t, and won’t, stop all bullets all of the time. He said his vest weighs 8 pounds. Officers aren’t required to wear them, but most do.
“It’d be foolish not to,” he said. “There have been officers killed that would have lived if they’d had their vest on.”
Officers are required to holster a gun when on duty. Off duty, it’s not required, but it’s recommended.
“It’d be a shame for an off-duty officer to be caught in a situation where he could have helped but neglected to arm himself,” Hemsted said.
Shoot to kill
“The goal in shooting is to end the threat,” Hemsted said, picking his words carefully. “We have to end the threat. If it’s a deadly threat, we have to end the deadly threat.”
Hemsted doesn’t carry a taser, but said there is always one officer on duty who does, just in case it’s needed. He’s been tased himself, and he knows its power.
“Everyone gets tased in the Academy,” he laughed. “If you don’t get tased, you don’t graduate. It’s horrible.”
Recruits are pepper sprayed in the academy, too.
Hemsted said recruits aren’t shot in the bullet-resistant vest area at the academy, though. It would hurt too much, and it’s not uncommon for ribs to break if a person is shot despite wearing the vest. He compared it to being hit in the torso with a baseball bat.
What the future holds
The threat of harm to law enforcement members has always been real, regardless of the decade, regardless of the department. Unfortunately, for reasons on both sides of the argument, tension has risen in recent years, and safety has become an even greater concern.
“I don’t think the job will be safer in the future,” Hemsted said. “The issues that have happened in the last several years around our country, some of the times the cops were bad and should be punished. But with the recent issues, No. 1, we get more resistance now, which means more possibility for the need to use force, which raises the risk of injury.”
But he goes on to say that using a calm demeanor and treating people with respect almost always cools heated tempers, and that won’t change now or in the future.
Quinn echoes the thought.
“All law enforcement is about engaging the community, and it always will come down to that — bringing calm to chaos,” he said.
“(I became a cop) to help people,” Hemsted said. “To be the guy who is called to solve someone’s problem, to resolve someone’s fears — I just love it. To be at my best when they’re at their worst; I love it.”
For Quinn, it’s much of the same.
“My law enforcement career has been so rewarding, and it has far exceeded any expectations I ever had,” he said. “Would I do it over again? In a heartbeat. My wife said I’m kind of a nut and tells me ‘You’re the only person I know who loves going to work.’ ”
Parizek said that while getting shot at can sometimes be a tough sell to recruits, helping people is what ultimately gets people to sign on.
“Everyone says, ‘I got in to this to help people,’ ” he said. “But the truth is, they actually did.”
But it’s not all sunshine and lollipops. Physical safety is one concern for police officers and their families, but there is a psychological threat, too.
“I’m more suspicious of people’s behavior,” Hemsted said when asked if police work has changed him. “And I’m more aware of my surroundings. And maybe I’m not as outgoing. I’m definitely better at spotting lies. People lie to me every day.”
Things cops wish you knew
Cops are human. They have families. They have hopes, dreams and, yes, they have fears and insecurities, too. When you’re pulled over in your vehicle, here are some suggestions from Hemsted to make everyone’s day a little easier:
- Turn on an interior light. This makes it easier for the officer to see any potential threats to his or her safety or the lack thereof.
- Don’t reach for papers. Officers don’t know what you’re reaching for. You know you’re going for the registration, but in the mind of law enforcement, it could just as easily be a gun.
- Keep your hands where the officer can see them. Hemsted said if he’s pulled over, he puts his palms facing down on the steering wheel with his fingers spread out. That way, when the officer walks up, he’s seeing compliance right away.
- Another good thing for people to understand is that a person can be prevented from leaving the scene of an investigation while not being under arrest. “It’s when we’re investigating a possible crime,” said Hemsted. “It’s when you’re not under arrest, but you aren’t free to leave either.” Generally a situation of this nature lasts no more than 20 minutes.
Items of interest
Mission Statement — DMPD: The Des Moines Police Department will work in partnership with our community to protect lives and property, and to enforce laws impartially.
Why are cops sometimes called “pigs”? Some say the term originates with the George Orwell classic “Animal Farm,” where the hypocritical ruling class of animals consists of swine. Others say it originates from policemen wearing gas masks with their riot gear, and the gas mask appears “snout-ish.” All are wrong. It’s unknown where the term originated, but it far pre-dates both “Animal Farm” and gas masks, going back to at least the 1500s.
Puke in the backseat? Bodily fluids such as urine or vomit need to be professionally cleaned and disinfected from the back of patrol cars. Regular filth, such as mud from boots or a dog may be cleaned by the officer on duty.
Total: The DMPD’s annual budget is $60 million for fiscal year 2017.
“One of the main differences is when we hear gunfire, we turn and run toward it.”
— Des Moines Police Department Sgt. Paul Parizek
Sticker price: DMPD SUV patrol vehicles cost $26,327 for the vehicle and $31,500 after installing additional special equipment like radio, lights, siren, computer, camera, etc.
Standard issue: Each new officer with the DMPD is issued apparel such as uniforms, hats, coats, etc. For equipment, each receives a badge, flashlight, utility belt, ballistic vest, flashlight and riot helmet. The cost is $3,105 per person.
Coming soon: Body cameras will cost about $1,000 per officer.
Other: The DMPD provides a $650 allowance for each bullet-proof vest. Badges run $41.
Salary: Officers hired for the upcoming Academy class will be paid an annual wage of $58,588 ($28.17 per hour).
Mental requirements listed on DMPD job description: Work under highly stressful and emotional conditions. Maintain control of emotions; keep personal feelings to self. Use sound judgment in emergency situations. Maintain intense concentration and alertness during stressful situations. Maintain alertness in extreme conditions, particularly when preceded by extended periods of relative low stress or monotony. Follow rules and obey orders. Make observations and recall facts and details with a high degree of accuracy. Adapt to rapidly changing situations. Read, comprehend, learn and apply state laws, federal laws, city ordinances and departmental policies and procedures.
Environmental conditions listed on DMPD job description: Work in extreme heat, extreme cold, humid and wet conditions. Work in and around moving vehicles. Potential exposure to noise, vibrations, fire, chemical agents, hazardous substances, poor ventilation, sharp objects, cluttered areas, poor lighting, fumes, odors, dust, smoke, infectious agents, blood borne pathogens and gases. Expected to wear protective vests.
10,000 arrests made in a city of 200,000. In any given year, the DMPD makes roughly 10,000 arrests. It doesn’t take a math whiz to wonder: Are one in 20 citizens really getting arrested?
“There are an unbelievable amount of repeat arrests when it comes to public intox-types of things,” Hemsted said.
K9 Harley: In addition to the 21 officers lost in the line of duty, the city of Des Moines also lost one K9 named Harley on Aug. 29, 2012. Harley died due to heat exhaustion.
Iowa history: Iowa’s Department of Public Safety lists 177 names under Iowa Peace Officer Line of Duty Deaths. CV