“Policing is always such a profession that is going to have potential danger. That is the reality of it. … The anger and the hatred and the violence directed against our police officers that every year takes more a hundred of their lives. So, I think we need to broaden the conversation to include the dangers being directed against them also.”
— New York Police Department Commissioner William Bratton, CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” Dec. 28, 2014
Bratton was asked whether policing in New York City feels more dangerous after the assassination-style killings of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in their patrol car on Dec. 20, 2014. NYPD investigated more than 50 incidents of reported threats against officers since their deaths, Bratton answered, and advisories are being issued to remind officers to be on alert for potential dangers that might be directed at them.
There is no question police officers face potential dangers on their job, including the possibility of ambush attacks out of anger or hate (the man who killed Liu and Ramos had posted messages of hate toward government and police on social media). A reader pointed out the statistic Bratton cited, so we checked it out.
Are more than 100 police officers killed every year? How many of their deaths are caused by anger and hatred toward police?
The FBI publishes an annual report using information on officer deaths reported by its field offices, law enforcement agencies and nonprofits. From 2004 to 2013, an average of 114 officers died each year. The FBI breaks down the figure in two ways: accidents and “felonious incidents,” or deaths as a result of a criminal act. Accidental deaths include aircraft accidents, being struck by vehicles while directing traffic, drownings and being shot accidentally in a crossfire. Felonious incidents include ambushes, traffic pursuits and responding to domestic violence or barricades, hostage-taking or arrest situations.
Bratton said in his CBS interview that the “anger and the hatred and the violence” directed against police officers take more than 100 officers’ lives. On average, 114 officers died in the line of duty every year from 2004 to 2013, according to FBI data. The lowest was 76 deaths in 2013, and the highest was 140 in 2007.
But the actual number of non-accidental deaths, which would fit Bratton’s description of “anger and the hatred and the violence,” has not topped 100 since the 1980s. The lowest number of felonious deaths during that same time period was 27 deaths in 2013, and the highest was 72 in 2011. Non-accidental deaths ranged from 38 to 58 percent of total officer fatalities in a given year.
In general, law enforcement fatalities have been declining since the 1970s. Some factors that contributed to the decline were increased use of bullet-resistant vests, availability of highly-trained SWAT teams that are used for especially dangerous situations, and use of stun guns that allow officers to keep a distance from perpetrators instead of hand-to-hand combat.
Felonious deaths also have been on a steady decline. Nearly 140 officers died in felonious incidents in 1973. In 2013, there were 27 such deaths, according to the FBI. Ambush attacks, which certainly fit Bratton’s description, accounted for 21.7 percent of felonious deaths from 2004 to 2013:
Bratton cited the figure using the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund’s 2014 annual report, according to a spokesman who declined to be identified. The nonprofit tracks officer deaths and publishes an annual report that breaks down the causes of death. The 2014 preliminary report, released in December, contains the memorial fund’s unofficial findings from the year. The FBI has not yet published its 2014 Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted report.
The total number of deaths reported by the memorial fund is consistently higher than FBI data. One factor contributing to the higher number is the memorial fund’s count of job-related illnesses, such as heart attacks.But such data also would not support Bratton’s claim of “anger and the hatred and the violence directed against our police officers.”
In 2014, 126 officers died while on duty, according to the memorial fund. Half of the officers were killed in felonious incidents. Of the 62 felonious incidents, 15 were ambushes similar to the killings of the two NYPD officers. The other half resulted from non-criminal incidents such as accidents and job-related illnesses.
Ambushes triggered by anti-government or anti-police sentiment started “well before” the protests over the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, said Craig Floyd, chairman and chief executive of the memorial fund. For example, two Las Vegas police officers were fatally shot point-blank while eating lunch at a Cici’s Pizza by a couple who had expressed anti-government views. A sniper attack by an anti-police survivalist killed one Pennsylvania state trooper and injured another when they were standing outside the police barracks.
In 2010, the Justice Department launched a training program called VALOR (Violence Against Law Enforcement and Ensuring Officer Resilience and Survivability) to address increases in ambush-style assaults of police.
Lastly, it is important to note the context to these numbers. There were about 627,000 law enforcement officers in 2013, according to the FBI. If 62 officers were killed as a result of criminal acts in 2014, that would make up 0.01 percent of U.S. police forces.
The percentage of homicides of police is lower compared to some other occupations in the United States, including retail sales workers and food preparation workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Clarification: The BLS table shows homicides as a percentage of total fatal injuries for the specific occupation group, not compared to the total labor force in that group.) The rate of nonfatal occupational injury and illness among police, at least in local government, was among the highest in 2013.
The Pinocchio Test
Bratton is correct that more than 100 police officers die while on duty every year. But attributing all 100-plus deaths to anger, hatred and violence directed at police is misleading. Accidents generally outnumber murders of police each year. Just under half of the police deaths from 2004 to 2013 were relating to criminal situations, and even a smaller percentage were ambush attacks.
Data from both the FBI and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund show Bratton misrepresented the frequency of homicides of police officers, and for that, we award Two Pinocchios.
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