Since it was established by John F. Kennedy’s presidential proclamation in 1962, Americans have recognized May 15 as National Police Officer Memorial Day and the week surrounding it as National Police Week to honor the service of law enforcement officers.
In Montana, 128 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty, including nine Montana Department of Justice employees — eight Highway Patrol Troopers and one Division of Criminal Investigation agent. We were fortunate that none was killed during the last year, but that doesn’t mean that the job is safer than years past.
The methamphetamine epidemic that swept our state in recent years has led to a spike in violent crime of 48 percent from 2013 to 2019. Last year, we saw another alarming rise in crime and criminals who seem to be growing bolder and more violent. We can’t forget that it is our officers who put their lives on the line every day to protect their communities.
They also face additional scrutiny — and often hostility — toward law enforcement in a way that previous generations have not. Driven by special interest groups and misleading media narratives, the anti-police agenda manifests itself with slogans such as “Defund the Police” and even “Abolish the Police.”
Then it turns into political attacks on law enforcement, such as federal legislation to take away their qualified immunity protections. Qualified immunity protects law enforcement officers from being sued individually unless they violated a clearly established constitutional right. In practical terms, it means law enforcement officers doing their best to act within the bounds of the law can’t be sued personally, and it prevents them from being harassed with frivolous lawsuits.
All of this has a cumulative and negative impact on our law enforcement officers and, by extension, on public safety. But here in Montana, we value our law enforcement officers.
The support Montanans show through everything from the “Back the Blue” lawn signs, bumper stickers, and license plates to their daily interactions with officers makes a difference. While agencies in other states face officer shortages due to early retirements, medical leave from mental burnout and stress, and some just deciding to leave the profession altogether, Montana is becoming a destination for law enforcement professionals who want to continue their careers in a place where citizens support them.
One trooper who recently joined the Highway Patrol from out of state told us it took some time to get used to people thanking him for his service. As I’ve told our new troopers and recent law enforcement academy graduates: Montanans know they have our backs — and we have theirs.
In his proclamation of the first National Police Week and Peace Officers Memorial Day, President Kennedy asked Americans to “join in commemorating police officers, past and present, who by their faithful and loyal devotion to their responsibilities have rendered a dedicated service to their communities and, in so doing, have established for themselves an enviable and enduring reputation for preserving the rights and security of all citizens.”
Given recent events, heeding those words is even more important now than it was then. Please join me this National Police Week in remembering the 128 law enforcement officers who lost their lives in service to our state and in thanking our current law enforcement officers for the sacrifices they make day in and day out for Montana communities
Austin Knudsen is Montana's attorney general.