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Why are Murfreesboro police officers being assaulted so often?

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MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WMOT)  --  A University of Cincinnati police officer was scheduled to make an initial court appearance Thursday morning, following his arrest in connection with the shooting death of an unarmed, black motorist.

The arrest is just the latest in a string of troubling incidents that are fueling a raucous national debate about the appropriate use of force by law enforcement.

Here in the mid-state, one city’s police department seems to have the opposite problem. In Murfreesboro it’s the police officers themselves who are being assaulted at an alarmingly high rate.

Earlier this year, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation released its annual Law Enforcement Officers Killed or Assaulted (LEOKA) report. The study shows Murfreesboro officers were assaulted 64 times in 2014. That’s a rate of 1 assault for every 3.5 officers on the force, a ratio nearly 5 times higher than neighboring Metro Nashville.

To help interpret the numbers, WMOT News asked veteran police officer and Middle Tennessee State professor of Criminal Justice, Lee Wade, to take his own look at the report. Dr. Wade began by explaining that the term “assault” covers a lot of ground.

“Being pushed or punched, or possibly stabbed by a suspect having a weapon on them when they conduct an arrest or make a field contact or respond to a 911 call. It’s a wide range of different offenses that can occur against a police officer,” Wade said.

Dr. Wade stressed that making direct comparisons between departments is difficult. Variables such as the size of the department, the resources available, along with the culture of the department and community can skew the numbers.

In spite of those reservations, Wade went on to characterize the number of assaults reported by Murfreesboro officers as “disturbing.” He said Murfreesboro police officers are being attacked at a rate more than twice that of other cities around the country in its same population category.

Dr. Wade noted that he is familiar with the MPD’s training regimen and believes it to be better than most departments of similar size. So he’s a little puzzled by the high assault rate.

“Chief Chrisman is actually proud to talk about the number of hours his officers receive. Lt. Steve Teeters is the training officer and they’re training constantly at the Murfreesboro Police Department, so they’re Use of Force training and Community Policing training is some of the best,” Wade said.    

Wade said one possible explanation for the high number of assaults is that some Murfreesboro officers simply aren’t staying focused; failing to always follow procedures designed to keep them safe. He said current research suggests that, nationwide, complacency is the most common reason law enforcement officers suffer assaults.

“The officers are very good at identifying body-cues when people may assault them,” Wade explained, “but they sometimes rely on it too much so that they trust the person they make contact with in the midst of an arrest or processing them and because they trust them, they are likely to be the victim of an assault.”

WMOT News asked the Murfreesboro Police Department to comment on the officer assault statistics on two occasions, but the department declined. WMOT also asked for the number of officers treated for injuries following an assault, but was told the department doesn’t keep track of that information.

Statewide, law enforcement officers were assaulted in the line of duty more than 1700 times in 2014. Happily, no Tennessee officers died last year as a result of being assaulted.

Would you like to review the complete LEOKA report for 2014?