On an almost daily basis, law enforcement officers in jurisdictions of all sizes encounter individuals and circumstances that pose a high risk of personal injury, assault, and sometimes death. The continuum of risks and the circumstances in which they arise are as broad as they are varied. Officers can receive anything from minor cuts and contusions while attempting to restrain a combative suspect to more serious and life-threatening injuries at the hands of a desperate individual who believes that he or she has nothing to lose and everything to gain by harming the police. The fact that police make almost fourteen million arrests and engage in nearly forty-five million face-to-face contacts with the public on an annual basis no doubt creates an environment that provides ample opportunity for injurious, and sometimes deadly, altercations to erupt.
With little room for disagreement, policing is a dangerous line of work. While it may be true that other occupations (e.g., timber cutters, mining) pose a statistically higher risk of job-related injury or death, such examples are qualitatively distinct from police work on the basis that they generally involve unintentional mishaps or negligence, whereas the risks confronted by officers generally involve acts of aggression committed by someone who intends to do them harm. In simple terms, police work is uniquely dangerous because it is one of only a few professions whose employees must acknowledge and reconcile the fact that any injury inflicted on them is typically the result of an aggressive act by someone who intends to hurt or perhaps even kill them.
Official Sources of Information on Police Officer Deaths
With this distinction in mind, the question that logically arises is one of assessing the frequency with which police officers are injured, assaulted, or killed while on the job. In making this determination, the most widely recognized source of official information on what can be best characterized as ”line-of-duty” assaults and deaths is the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s publication Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted. The report, released annually since 1960, relates aggregate-level data regarding the number of officers who are assaulted or killed during the previous calendar year. While informative, the report is not without its weaknesses. First, it fails to reflect the less serious everyday injuries that are incurred (e.g., a jammed finger, twisted knee, or broken bone) because it focuses only on those instances involving the use of a dangerous weapon. Consequently, little is known about the ”dark figure” of less-than-deadly assaults on the police. Second, the report is based on data that have been voluntarily submitted by participating agencies. This potential weakness is offset somewhat by the fact that FBI field offices attempt to follow up on assaults against the police as such instances come to their attention. Third, larger agencies that experience a high frequency of assaults on officers may not report such instances due to the additional burden that is placed on what may be an already overtaxed and sometimes antiquated record-keeping system.
Because of these and other practical considerations, there are no firm official estimates from the FBI regarding the frequency with which less serious injuries are inflicted on officers—thus the reason for such a narrow focus within the report on only those instances where an officer has lost her or his life under accidental or intentional circumstance.
Research into the Prevalence and Correlates of Violence against the Police
Fortunately, this lack of official attention regarding the frequency of nonlethal assaults on the police has been acknowledged and, to a certain extent, reconciled by a small number ofresearchers who, also since the early 1960s, have conducted their own inquiries using data gleaned from various agencies. The first and arguably most influential of these studies was that conducted by Bard (1970), which asserted that officers are most likely to be seriously injured while responding to calls of a domestic nature.
Although this early finding has since been reconsidered due to its reliance on statistical methods of limited sophistication, it nonetheless seems reasonable to credit the assertions made therein with drawing attention to the general problem of assaults on the police as well as highlighting the specific risks that domestic disturbance calls pose for officer safety. More recent research, such as that conducted by Ellis et al. (1993), Garner and Clemmer (1986), Grennan (1987), Hirschel et al. (1994), Kaminski (2004), Kaminski and Sorensen (1995), Lester (1978, 1982), Margarita (1980), Stanford and Mowry (1990), Uchida et al. (1987), and Wilson and Meyer (1990), has identified a much broader range of circumstances and factors both temporally and statistically related to assaults on police officers.
Although these studies are too numerous and detailed to summarize in the immediate context, several practical implications have arisen from this line of research. One implication is the acknowledgment that nonlethal assaults against the police far exceed the number of officers who are murdered. Another is the increased emphasis that they have placed on the need for training on topics as varied as communication and problem solving to defensive tactics. Yet another is the recognition that assaults on the police not only pose obvious physical consequences for those directly involved, but also for the figurative ”health” of the agency in terms of morale, recruitment, retention, productivity, and police-community relations to name but just a few areas of administrative concern. Given these consequences, the need for continued and sophisticated research on the topic, particularly that which is as broad based and generalized as possible, remains strong.
Accidental Deaths of Police Officers
While personal injury as the result of an intentional assault is indeed widespread and disconcerting, perhaps even more so are the accidental deaths incurred by the profession. During the ten-year period from 1994 to 2003 (the most recent time frame for which data are available), 697 officers died accidentally in the line of duty. The fewest accidental deaths occurred in 1996 (fifty-two cases) and the greatest number of losses occurred in 2000 (eighty-three cases).
The most frequent circumstance giving rise to the accidental death of police officers across the ten-year period without exception involved automobile accidents. The second most common cause of accidental death among officers is being struck by a vehicle, generally during a traffic stop, while directing traffic, or while investigating an accident. Far less common, but still prevalent, are other situations such as training mishaps, accidental discharge of firearms, and mistaken identity. To be sure, these unfortunate instances are significant insofar as they provide a unique learning opportunity intended to prevent or, at least minimize, their future occurrence.
Murders of Police Officers
Of greatest concern to both the public and the profession are those instances in which a police officer is feloniously killed in the line of duty. Over the ten-year period from 1994 to 2003, 616 officers were intentionally killed while performing their duties. The greatest number of officers was killed in 1994 (seventy-nine murders) with the fewest number of occurrences in 1992 (forty-two murders). On average, approximately sixty-one officers have been killed annually between 1994 and 2003. Interestingly, the FBI does not include the seventy-two law enforcement personnel who were killed in conjunction with the events of September 11, 2001, in this ten-year longitudinal analysis on grounds that including these cases would skew the data. Excluding this particular instance, a police officer’s risk of being murdered has steadily decreased during the past thirty-five years from 1 in 4,000 to over 1 in 12,000. Several potential explanations for this trend might include improved training and tactics as well as the increased use of protective body armor.
The type of situation most frequently giving rise to the murder of a police officer for the ten-year period from 1994 to 2003 was that involving an attempted arrest (187) followed by traffic pursuits/stops (101) and ambushes (100). Other situations in which officers were killed included responding to disturbance calls (e.g., domestic assaults or bar fights) (98) or investigating suspicious persons (96). Far less frequent were instances involving prisoner transport (20), handling the mentally ill (14), or civil disturbances/riots (0). Interestingly, the distribution of these instances does not appear to fluctuate greatly from year to year. Simply stated, arrest situations, suspicious person calls, and traffic stops seem to consistently dominate the contexts in which officers are most frequently killed.
Research conducted by Cardarelli (1968) in the early 1960s revealed that arrests related to robbery or suspicious person calls posed the greatest risk for officers in urban areas, whereas prisoner transport was the more common cause of fatality in nonurban settings. Research conducted by Konstanin (1984) supports the threat posed by ”suspicious persons,” especially where the contact is officer initiated, but failed to find the elevated risk associated with robbery calls/arrests as previously reported by Cardarelli. Yet another study focusing on the murder of New York City police officers from 1844 to 1978 by Margarita (1980) revealed that only 28.5% of such incidents occurred in the context of robbery investigations. Although evidence regarding the prevalence of robbery-related deaths is somewhat contradictory in the context of these historically and geographically bound studies, the fact remains that offenses involving the use of a weapon pose a substantial risk to officer safety.
Common knowledge abounds in law enforcement circles regarding the fact that nighttime hours are the most dangerous for an officer’s personal safety. While this contention is in fact supported by the available data, such narrow focus detracts attention from the risk that officers face during the daytime hours when, quite surprisingly, a significant number of killings occur in broad daylight. Although variation exists from year to year, the most dangerous days of the week are Tuesday through Friday, with the fewest officer killings occurring on Sundays. No readily distinguishable differences exist indicating that any one season or month of the year is more or less dangerous than the next.
Contrary to expectation and the understandable fear of most officers, very few officers were killed with their own weapons. Rather, most officers are killed by other weapons already in the possession of those who would do them harm. Practically speaking, this means that officers should be more cognizant of weapons other than their own that might be readily used against them. Without exception across the ten-year period from 1994 to 2003, most officers who were feloniously killed in the line of duty (320) did not make use of their own weapon for defensive purposes, and most (516) did not have their weapon stolen by the assailant. A clear majority of officers are killed by a handgun (425), with very few being killed by a rifle (109) or shotgun (34). Edged weapon (knife) attacks (7) occur even less frequently. Thus, although weapon retention is indeed an important part of the training officers receive regarding street survival, the available data strongly suggest that attention should also be paid to the early detection and securing of other weapons (i.e., handguns) that might be used for assaultive purposes.
Particular attention is frequently given to the characteristics of victim officers—surviving officers like to think that they are somehow different from those who have fallen and are therefore at lower risk for meeting the same fate. This rationalization can, however, lead to a false sense of safety in light of the available data, which suggest that although officers between thirty-one and forty years of age comprise the largest number of victims (227), those in the age ranges of twenty-one to thirty (200) and forty-one and above (186) remain at almost equal risk. White male officers are at higher risk than their female and racial counterparts. This pattern may be due, at least in part, to the fact that law enforcement continues to be a profession largely dominated by this particular demographic (i.e., white males). The typical victim officer is between thirty-six and thirty-eight years of age with an average of ten years of service—two particular characteristics that have not changed much, if any, over the years. Again, however, officers in other age groups with fewer or greater years of service remain at risk, albeit to a slightly lesser extent.
Of the 748 suspects involved in the killings of police officers over the ten-year period from 1994 to 2003, most were white (407) males (721) between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four (284). This profile should not, however, be interpreted to mean that other races, genders, or age groups are harmless—members of other groups still account for a significant number of suspects involved in police killings and should not be taken any less seriously. Similarly, although individuals with prior arrests and convictions accounted for the largest portion of suspects, there remain significant numbers of individuals who fatally strike out at the police in the absence of any real past criminal record.
To be sure, the killing of a police officer receives considerable media attention and public outcry. This reaction, combined with the fervent determination of fellow officers to capture the suspect, likely accounts for the exceptionally high clearance rate of police murders. Of the 816 individuals identified as suspects in police killings from 1992 to 2001, only 11 evaded arrest at the time of the report publication (and may very well have been since killed or captured). Most suspects (629) were arrested and brought to trial. Others were justifiably killed by police (103), and some committed suicide (64). Thus, the clearance rate for the murder of police officers is especially high given that surviving officers and investigators take a very ”personal” interest in these types of cases.
Benefits for Survivors
While local communities and agencies both suffer from the accidental loss or felonious killing of an officer, those who experience the most long-term effects of a life cut short in the line of duty are immediate family members. Initially emerging in response to isolated instances at the local and then state level, there exist today a number and variety of support networks for police survivors. Some of these, such as the Concerns of Police Survivors, are privately created and funded, while others like the Bureau of Justice Administration’s Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program are taxpayer supported and, as such, government administered. Clearly, the purpose of these programs is to provide emotional and financial support for survivors through a network of local chapters, peer support groups, benefit coordinators, and programmatic offerings.
Commemorating Fallen Officers
The legacy of those who are killed in the line of duty is preserved by the National Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial Fund, which not only maintains a memorial wall visited by more than 150,000 people annually, but has successfully lobbied for several public acknowledgments of police sacrifice such as Police Officer Memorial Day (on May 15 each year) and the minting of five hundred thousand commemorative silver dollars, which has generated more than $1.5 million for maintenance and repair of the facility. Most recently, the fund successfully lobbied Congress for the appropriation of land at Judiciary Square in Washington, D.C., on which a national law enforcement museum is expected to be constructed.