How Cops Die: 15-Year Recap Important For Training

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Knowing how cops die is the foundation for teaching them how to survive. So a recently published, 15-year analysis of the ways and means by which U.S. LEOs are feloniously slain is worth close study by every trainer and every officer.

A team from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore dug into the details of the “occupational homicides” of nearly 800 officers killed in the line of duty between 1996 and 2010.

The results, writes lead author Dr. David Swedler, “should inform officer training and policies, as well as procedures used when interacting with suspects, especially when firearms are involved.”

To understand the incident-by-incident circumstances of LEO fatalities, including “officer characteristics, encounter scenarios, weapons used, and perpetrator information,” Swedler’s team meticulously parsed the death narratives collected in the FBI’s annual “Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted” reports across the study period.

Excluding the 72 LEOs killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a skewing aberration, the team reports these findings, among others, that “can be important in helping agencies to adjust training and service procedures”:

  • The most frequent situations victim officers were dealing with when slain were disturbance calls (23%), vehicle stops (17%), and investigations (17%). These were the “only scenarios to occur more than 60 times throughout the study period,” the researchers note.
  • Of the disturbance-call cases, “the assailant was waiting to ambush the responding officer” nearly 30% of the time, frequently with a long-gun.
  • Vehicles (about 5%) were a distant second to firearms (over 90%) as the weapon most favored by attackers. Least likely was a fatal unarmed attack (0.03%).
  • One in 10 officer homicides was perpetrated by the officer’s own weapon. Citing other research findings, Swedler’s group observes that “LEOs underestimate the frequency of [gun] ‘takeaways’ ” and of “homicides committed with service weapons.”
  • A majority of fatal wounds (55%) were to the head or neck “where body armor protection is less likely,” with nearly 30% to the upper torso. (This correlates with a study by the Force Science Institute of inexperienced shooters who were role-playing suspects in a series of experiments. The vast majority aimed for the head–with surprising accuracy–rather than the torso, researchers found. See Force Science News here.)
  • Among the cases where the data is known, 7% of slain officers were not wearing body armor.
  • More than one officer was killed or wounded in 30% of the cases.
  • More than one assailant was involved in 17% of fatal encounters. Among attackers, 37% were either under the influence of drugs or alcohol or were “known drug offenders.”
  • During the study period, officer killings peaked in 2001 and then experienced a steady decline. Even so, the “occupational injury fatality rate for LEOs in the U.S. is three to five times the national average of private sector employees,” the study reports. American LEOs trail only cab drivers, gas station attendants, and liquor store employees for being most at risk of being murdered while working.

The researchers’ findings were published in the journal Injury Prevention, under the title “Occupational homicide of law enforcement officers in the US, 1996-2010.” To read a free abstract or download the full study for a fee, go to: http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/20/1/35.long

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