2006: The New Hampshire Police Officer
MANCHESTER -- THE STREETS are more dangerous, the criminals more violent and the stakes higher than ever.
That is the life of today's police officer in New Hampshire.
"Any officer going on the street doesn't know what he's going to experience on his shift," Epping Police Chief Gregory Dodge said. "It's going to be the good, the bad and the ugly."
Last October, Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs -- a five-year police veteran and the father of two boys -- was fatally shot while trying to subdue a man moments before his nighttime shift ended.
His death put a spotlight on the dangers that officers face and the courage they exhibit every time they hit the streets.
The New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News have named "the New Hampshire police officer" -- more than 4,200 in all -- as New Hampshire Citizen of the Year .
The award recognizes an individual or group who, in the newspapers' view, has had the biggest influence or effect on New Hampshire in a given year. Granite State men and women in the Armed Forces were named the award's first recipients in 2004. Gov. John Lynch was last year's honoree.
"In 2006, the murder of officer Michael Briggs served to dramatically and tragically underscore the sometimes perilous work that we ask of our front-line policemen and women in the big cities and small towns of our state day in and night out throughout the year," said newspaper President and Publisher Joseph W. McQuaid.
"The police officer's work is sometimes tedious and often stressful. He is too often taken for granted by citizens who mutter, 'Where's a cop when you need one?' even as they ask 'for a break, officer' when they run afoul of the law," he said.
"2006 was a difficult year for New Hampshire police officers," McQuaid said. "Their work, including the ultimate sacrifice paid by one of their number, was of great influence in the state. We hope their collective selection as our Citizen of the Year will serve to make the public more appreciative of their efforts."
Briggs marked the 42nd law enforcement officer in New Hampshire to die in the line of duty since 1921.
"When an officer is killed in action, it has a dramatic effect on all officers everywhere," said Earl Sweeney, assistant commissioner of the state Department of Safety.
"There is a tremendous sense of brotherhood and sisterhood in the police profession when one of us is killed or injured, all of us feel as though it was a member of our own immediate family," he said. "It also tends to serve as a terrible wakeup call to officers to revisit our everyday tactics because officers sometimes tend to become complacent when the majority of situations that we handle are able to be resolved with verbal skills alone."
Life on the street has changed since the early 1990s, when Manchester had a major drug problem in the inner city, said David Connare, president of the Manchester Police Patrolman's Association.
"It didn't have the violent edge that it has now," Connare said.
"There's more guns on the streets. We see guns on a regular basis," he said.
"Clearly, it's become a more dangerous job," Connare said. "Police work hasn't changed. I think we're facing more danger than ever before. There's more guns out there."
A different generation of criminals is on the street compared to 15 years ago when fights often were settled without weapons.
"Now, almost immediately the knives come out and they stab each other and it escalates into guns," he said.
"Criminals today, they don't have a regard for human life," he said. "They're not thinking of the consequences."
Dodge agreed that today's criminals are "more brazen," sometimes wearing body armor and firing armor-piercing bullets at police.
"We're taught nothing's routine," the chief said. "The potential is out there for a deadly encounter."
Last year, 155 law enforcement officers nationwide were killed in the line of duty, including 64 termed felonious deaths, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Over the past 10 years, the number killed in the line of duty has averaged 163 a year.
In 2005, 59,428 assaults on law enforcement were reported along with 16,072 injuries.
Police departments, looking to get their officers out of the station longer, have given police laptops to run license checks and fill out police reports.
Rather than an officer spending up to half his shift in the police station, now "90 percent of the time, he's out on the road," said the Epping chief.
Too often, he said, victims of a crime expect police to catch the bad guys right away.
"They look at TV shows like 'CSI.' They see in an hour's time, (police) come up on a scene and resolve it in an hour," Dodge said. "The expectation of the common citizen sometimes is it shouldn't take us a week or two on an investigation of a theft or assault."
Many people, Connare said, don't realize how police are often treated.
"Most law-abiding citizens would be surprised at the lack of respect given to police officers on the street by less law-abiding citizens," Connare said. "Police officers on the night shift are rolling around with people on a regular basis."
Connare said budget restraints have affected training. "We're not trained to the level we should be," he said.
People also are not as eager as they once were to join the force.
In the early 1990s, 800 to 1,000 people would take the exam to become officers.
"Now, we run a test and we get 80," he said.
The death of Officer Briggs reminded everyone of the dangers for New Hampshire's 2,990 full-time and 1,281 part-time certified officers.
At least 4,000 police officers from around the country marched in Briggs' funeral procession. Average folks have given thousands of dollars at fundraisers benefiting the officer's family. And musical acts at the Verizon Wireless Arena have noted his death -- including two members of the rock group Godsmack who wore T-shirts bearing his name during their concert there this month.
"Lots of times we only hear the complaints and fail to recognize that there is a vast silent majority out there who appreciate what police officers do, support law enforcement and bleed with us when we lose an officer," Sweeney said.