In the Line of Duty

Memphis bucks the national trend in police officer deaths.

| April 26, 2012

Although Memphis is often pegged for having a high crime rate, only three police officers have been killed while fighting crime over the last decade in Memphis and Shelby County.

That goes against a national trend that shows officer deaths on the rise despite a nationwide decrease in violent crime, according to a New York Times article that ran earlier this month. According to the article, 72 officers in the U.S. were murdered while on duty in 2011 — a 25 percent increase from the previous year and a 75 percent increase from 2008.

Since 2002, 42 officers have died in Tennessee while on duty. Fifteen of those officers were murdered while doing their jobs. Only three of those deaths were in Memphis and Shelby County, however: Anthony Woods and Timothy Warren of the Memphis Police Department (MPD) and George Selby with the Shelby County Sheriff's Office.

"It feels like you've lost a family member," said MPD lieutenant colonel Marcus Worthy, who during his 25 years on the force has lost fellow officers and "looked down the barrel of a few guns" himself.

Worthy recalled one incident where he could have become a casualty.

"We got a call where a gentleman in a house had pulled a gun on the officers in the house," Worthy said. "He shot at me through a window [with a handgun]. He came out the back door with a shotgun. ... I shot him because his gun was pointed at me."

The most recent officer death in Tennessee happened in Memphis last summer. On July 3rd, MPD officer Timothy Warren was fatally shot in the head as he responded to a shooting at the Doubletree hotel downtown.

Although it's been close to a year since the last officer death in Memphis, there have been a few close calls. In early April, MPD officer Josh Shearer was shot in his chest while exchanging gunfire with a carjacking suspect in Raleigh, but his life was spared thanks to his bulletproof vest.

Worthy said the department analyzes all police shootings, and it provides safety-training workshops in an attempt to prevent officer deaths.

"You can't let the officers get complacent," Worthy said. "They have to always be on alert. If an officer gets killed somewhere else, we try to find out how he got killed. What led up to him being killed? Was it something that he did? Did he get relaxed and not see something coming?"

Homicides aren't the only threat to working officers though. Police cruiser crashes are common and sometimes fatal. Since 2002, two officers — one in Memphis and one in Shelby County — have died in automobile accidents. There were 14 police deaths from automobile accidents in the state over the last decade.

Other deaths since 2002 were attributed to officers being struck by vehicles while standing outside of their police cruisers, physical altercations, and other accidents.

Worthy said officers must accept there's a chance that their life could be threatened every day when they go in to work.

"Most of the time, I come to work with the attitude that it's going to be a good day. I'm doing my job. I'm going to go home, and that's pretty much where I leave it," Worthy said. "When something happens that makes me wonder, then the safety level will kick up. It's an instinctive thing."

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