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The history of U.S. police deaths in the line of duty

The U.S. has lost an estimated 20,789 police and law enforcement officers in the line of duty in its history.

Some have died while fighting storms (Galveston, 1900).  More recently, many others, have been killed in car or helicopter crashes. Some have died trying to defuse bombs. (Nine in one incident in 1917.) A significant number, in recent times, have passed away from heart attacks or other illness on the job.

But what do we know about when  and how police officers are attacked and killed? Here are some questions and answers.

Where does this shooting fit in history?

This is an incredibly rare occurrence in modern America.

In the last 30 years, the U.S. has seen only three other incidents with police deaths on this scale or larger.  Two of those were broad terrorist attacks – September 11, 2001, and the Oklahoma City Bombing. (See below.) The third was a California helicopter crash which killed five sheriff’s deputies and three national guardsman in 1988.

But when was the last time the U.S. saw so many police targeted at once?

That appears to have been a New Orleans sniper. On the the final day of 1972 and first week of 1973 an AWOL Navy serviceman, who briefly joined the Black Panthers, targeted law enforcement officers. The gunman began a week of shootings by hiding outside a police station and opening fire. By the end, he killed five officers, four other people and wounded an additional 13 others.  The shooter wrote a letter explaining he was outraged over the deaths of two black men at the hands of police officers in Baton Rouge.

How many police officers are killed each year now?

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund keeps track of this.

  • Total deaths – Last year, 123 officers died in the line of duty, a figure that is roughly in line with recent previous years. But that is all deaths on the job, including accidents and illness. How many officers were killed?
  • Officers killed – For the last four years, the data indicate an approximate average of 40-50 officers were shot, stabbed, strangled or beaten to death each year.

What stands out now? Answer: Police gun deaths are on the rise.

Previous to the Dallas shootings, 2016 displayed two important trends:

  • The number of police deaths for this time of year was down 12 percent.
  • But the number of police officers killed by firearms was up 17 percent.  That echoes findings from the pro-gun-control Brady Campaign in May.  The group concluded that at that time,  the number of officers murdered by guns was up 70 percent.

What do we know about the most deadly attacks on police?

We know that in recent years, the most deadly attacks on police have come from terrorists.

  • September 11, 2001: by far the most lethal day for American law enforcement in history. 72 Officers from various agencies were killed, the vast majority of whom were responding to the terrorist attacks upon the Twin Towers in New York City.
  • April 19, 1995: the Oklahoma City Bombing left eight federal law enforcement agents dead.  

What things affect the numbers of police deaths?

Looking over the broader sweep of history, many experts believe that when crime goes up, so do police deaths.  And very relatedly, when the number of police officers on the street increases, crime decreases. And police deaths decrease.

That theory is bolstered by several low-crime and relatively low-police-death decades in the last century: the 1950s and the 1990s especially.

Where can I see the list of officers killed this year?

That is here, on the Officers Down Memorial Page.

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