By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP
he death of a law enforcement officer is a tragedy: It represents the needless loss of a spouse, a parent, a child, a sibling, a neighbor, and a coworker. One hundred twenty-five law enforcement officers made the supreme sacrifice in the United States in 2011.1
Law enforcement executives, trainers, and researchers seek to mitigate these tragedies and often rely upon an invaluable resource published annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to detect trends to reduce future unnecessary losses of life. The FBI recently released Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted [LEOKA] 2011, which is a virtual treasure trove of data detailing myriad aspects surrounding these 125 deaths.
Significantly, 2011 was the first year in 14 consecutive years (1998–2011) that more officers were killed feloniously than accidentally.2 The 72 officers feloniously killed in 2011 were the most murdered in a single year since 1995, and the 53 officers accidentally killed in 2011 represent the third fewest in a quarter century (1987–2011).3 An average of 62 officers a year were killed feloniously in that 25-year period, while an average of 69 officers a year died accidentally during that same time period.4
Even though officer deaths spiked at times between 1987 and 2011, as figure 1 demonstrates, one clear trend emerges: The number of felonious killings has declined since 1997, and the number of accidental deaths has risen. One hundred seventy-four—or 11 percent—more officers died accidentally than feloniously during these 25 years,5 and 152—or 28 percent—more officers died accidentally than feloniously over the decade 2002–2011.6 Even though it is beyond the scope of this piece, two of the primary factors that allowed accidental deaths of officers to eclipse their murders over the past quarter century were
- the increased wearing of more effective body armor by officers and
- improvements in tactical training.
Unfortunately, comparable increases in seat belt usage by officers and in the quality of in-service emergency vehicle operator training have not been implemented to reduce the incidence of officers needlessly dying in vehicle crashes or otherwise on highways.
Traffic crashes, involving both passenger vehicles and motorcycles, continue to claim too many law enforcement officers’ lives. These crashes killed 64 percent of the 1,715 officers who died accidentally between 1987 and 2011 and 69 percent of the 695 officers who were killed accidentally between 2002 and 2011.7 Excessive speed and unbuckled officers combined far too frequently to trigger a catastrophe. In fact, over a period of 27 years (1982 to 2008), “driving too fast for conditions or in excess of posted speed” was the second most prevalent driver-related crash factor.8 For 29 years (1980–2008), 42 percent of the officers killed in passenger vehicle crashes were not wearing seat belts.9 Significantly, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) reported that at least 9 of the officers who were killed in 41 passenger vehicle crashes in 2011 were not wearing seat belts10 and that at least 4 of the 48 officers accidentally killed in passenger vehicle crashes in 2012 were not restrained.11
“Failure to keep in proper lane or running off road” was the most prevalent driver-related crash factor between 1982 and 2008.12 NLEOMF data indicate that 17—or 42 percent—of the officers who were killed in 41 passenger vehicle crashes in 2011, as well as 12—or 25 percent—of those 48 officers accidentally killed in passenger vehicle crashes in 2012, were attributed to this specific crash factor.13 Excessive speed, adverse weather conditions, and not wearing seat belts frequently were factors in these collisions, too.
Seventeen percent of the 1,715 officers accidentally killed between 1987 and 2011 were victims of struck-by-vehicle incidents,14 and 15 percent of the 695 officers accidentally killed between 2002 and 2011 were struck by vehicles.15 The five killed in 2011 were the fewest to die in this manner since 1993.16 Perhaps, the requirement that officers directing traffic; investigating crashes; or handling lane closures, obstructed roadways, and disasters on all public roads wear high-visibility safety apparel meeting either the Class 2 or 3 ANSI/ISEA 107–2010 standard in the American National Standard for High-Visibility Safety Apparel and Headwear17 or the ANSI/ISEA 207-2006 standard in the American National Standard for High-Visibility Public Safety Vests18 is beginning to pay dividends.
Between 1987 and 2011, 283 officers were struck and killed by vehicles; this averages out to nearly one officer killed each month.19 Of these officers, 60 percent were “directing traffic, assisting motorist, etc.,” while the remaining 40 percent were involved in a “traffic stop, roadblock, etc.”20
Tire deflation devices remain “the most widely used pursuit termination technology available today.”21 They were deployed in 2009, 63 percent of the time that a pursuit intervention was initiated; in 2010, 68 percent of that time;22 and in 2011, 72 percent of that time.23 However, tire deflation devices have been involved in 26 officer deaths since their inception in 1996,24 and the Dallas, Texas, Police Department discontinued their use.25 Five officers died in 2011 in connection with the deployment of tire deflation devices—the most officers killed performing this task since 2003 when five officers also died.26 Deploying tire deflation devices is a high-risk, low-frequency activity for which officers require frequent training to temper the hazards inherent in quickly deploying these devices and retreating to a safe position so only the violator’s vehicle will be affected.
The age and tenure of the officers who were accidentally killed increased in 2011: Officers’ average age rose to 41 years, after holding constant at 38 years for a decade (2002–2011) and for both five-year periods included therein (2002–2006 and 2007–2011).27 Similarly, the length of service of officers accidentally killed rose to 13 years, after remaining fixed at 10 years for two decades (1992–2001 and 2002–2011).28 As three experienced FBI researchers pointed out so clearly, “Because seasoned officers have experienced so many successful outcomes in the past, they begin to rely on experience and believe that they can read people and situations accurately. This causes them to walk a dangerous tightrope. They become complacent, thinking that they can shortcut a thorough examination of the incident. Complacency, however, is the worst enemy of a veteran officer.”29 Unfortunately, this is a disturbing trend that is ripe for exploration and mitigation. ♦
1U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services, Uniform Crime Reports, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted [LEOKA] 2011, table 1, http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/leoka/2011/tables/table-1 (accessed January 4, 2013); and Ibid., table 61, http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/leoka/2011/tables/table-61 (accessed January 4, 2013).
2Ibid.; and LEOKA 2001, tables 16 and 28, http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/leoka/2001 (accessed January 4, 2013).
3Ibid.; and LEOKA 1996, tables 3 and 23, http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/leoka/1996 (accessed January 4, 2013).
6LEOKA 2011, tables 1 and 61.
7LEOKA 1996, table 23; LEOKA 2001, table 28; and LEOKA 2011, table 61.
8Eun Yong Noh, Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes, January 2011, DOT HS 811 411, 22, http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811411.pdf (accessed January 4, 2013).
10NLEOMF, “Seat Belt Usage among Officers Killed in Auto Crashes: 2011,” http://www.nleomf.org/facts/nhtsa-officer-safety-initiatives/current-officer-fatalities.html (accessed January 4, 2013).
11NLEOMF, “Recently Fallen,” http://www.nleomf.org/facts/recently-fallen (accessed January 4, 2013). The author kept a running annual spreadsheet of accidental deaths based on NLEOMF data from this website and extrapolated this fact from the data.
12Noh, Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes, 22.
13NLEOMF, “Archive Recently Fallen Officers 2011” and “Archive Recently Fallen Officers 2012,” http://www.nleomf.org/facts/recently-fallen/recently-fallen-officers/archive-recently-fallen.html and http://www.nleomf.org/facts/recently-fallen/recently-fallen-2012 (accessed January 4, 2013). The author kept a running annual spreadsheet of accidental deaths based on NLEOMF data from this website and extrapolated this fact from the data.
14LEOKA 1996, table 23; LEOKA 2001, table 28; and LEOKA 2011, table 61.
15LEOKA 2011, table 61.
16LEOKA 2001, table 28; and LEOKA 2011, table 61.
17Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), “Official Rulings: Request 6(09)-4,” April 27, 2010, http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/reqdetails.asp?id=852 (accessed January 4, 2013).
18FHWA, “Pedestrian and Worker Safety” and “Flagger Control,” chap. 6D and 6E in Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (2009), 564, 566, http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/pdfs/2009/part6.pdf (accessed January 4, 2013).
19LEOKA 1996, table 23; LEOKA 2001, table 28; and LEOKA 2011, table 61.
21Robert Osborne, Pursuit Management Task Force Report, September 1998, NCJ 172200 , 45, https://www.justnet.org/pdf/Pursuit-Management-Task-Force-Report.pdf (accessed January 4, 2013).
22Gerad Mead, Pursuits: Data That Drives Safety, April 25, 2011, 25.
23Gerad Mead , Pursuits: Driving Safety through Data Analysis, March 31, 2012, 27.
24Gregory R. McMahon, “Bulletin Alert: Deployment of Spike Strips,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 81, no. 9 (September 2012): 18, http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/september-2012/bulletin-alert (accessed January 4, 2013).
25Tanya Eiserer, “Dallas Police Ban Use of Spike Strips that Can Halt Fleeing Vehicles,” Dallas Morning News, June 7, 2012, < HREF="http://www.dallasnews.com/news/community-news/dallas/headlines/20120607-dallas-police-ban-use-of-spike-strips-that-can-halt-fleeing-vehicles.ece">http://www.dallasnews.com/news/community-news/dallas/headlines/20120607-dallas-police-ban-use-of-spike-strips-that-can-halt-fleeing-vehicles.ece (accessed January 4, 2013).
26McMahon, “Bulletin Alert: Deployment of Spike Strips,” 18; and to clarify, LEOKA 2011 classified officer deaths in this regard either as felonious traffic pursuits/stops or as accidentally struck by vehicle, based upon evidence of the violators’ intent. In 2011, four fell into the felonious traffic pursuits/stops category. See http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/leoka/2011/tables/table-20 and http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/leoka/2011/tables/table-61 (accessed January 4, 2013).
27LEOKA 2011, table 57, http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/leoka/2011/tables/table-57 (accessed January 4, 2013).
29Anthony J. Pinizzotto, Edward F. Davis, and Charles E. Miller III, “Traffic Stops,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 77, no. 5 (May 2008): 8, http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/2008-pdfs/may08leb.pdf (accessed January 4, 2013).
Please cite as:
Richard J. Ashton, "FBI’s LEOKA Offers Insight into Officer Deaths," Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 80 (February 2013): 64–66.