President Trump traveled to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to participate in a ceremony recognizing law enforcement officers who had died in the line of duty. Both as a candidate and as president, Trump has embraced the law enforcement community as part of his effort to position himself as tough on crime. During his remarks, he reinforced his administration’s commitment to keeping police officers safe.
“In 2016, an officer was assaulted in America on an average of every 10 minutes,” Trump said. “Can you believe that? It’s outrageous, and it’s unacceptable. We must end the attacks on our police, and we must end them right now.”
The “every 10 minutes” data point comes from FBI analysis which found that there were 57,180 officers who’d been victims of line-of-duty assaults that year, about one officer assaulted every 9.2 minutes. The number of assaults was up from the year prior.
Trump then pledged to protect police officers.
“I have directed the Justice Department,” he said, “to do everything in its power to defend the lives of American law enforcement.”
While it’s certainly the case that the deaths of law enforcement officers in the line of duty are tragedies, there is some good news: The number of such deaths has been steady or falling in recent years.
There are a few different places that aggregate this data. One is the Officer Down Memorial Page, which lists each individual fatality in a given year, including data on the cause of death and the number of deaths by state and month. Using that data, we can visualize the number of fatalities over the last 30 years, a period that includes the peak in violent crime in the country in the early 1990s. (The spike in the second half of 2001 should be self-explanatory.)
Bear in mind, though, that over that time, the number of police officers has increased. Having a consistent number of deaths in a growing population means that the rate of deaths is declining. The Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles data on fatal injury rates by occupation. Before 2003, the measure was listed as “Police and detectives, including supervisors.” After, it was “Police and sheriff’s patrol officers” — and the fatal injury rate jumped up. Over the past decade, though, the rates have generally been significantly lower. In 2015, the fatal injury rate was about what it was when the BLS figure included supervisory staff.
We’ll note, too, that while serving as a police officer is indisputably dangerous, there are many occupations in which the fatal-injury rate is significantly higher. The most dangerous occupation in 2016 was logging, by far, followed by fishing and piloting aircraft. After that were various construction and agricultural jobs, including roofing. The rate of fatal injuries for police officers ranked 16th.
That comparison is incomplete. There are two reasons that on-duty deaths of police officers receive and deserve special attention. The first is that those deaths are often (though not always) a function of criminal activity. The second is that their lives were given in service to the protection of the community.
The good news is that progress has been made in reducing the number of such incidents. Even in 2016, when the number of felonious police line-of-duty deaths tallied by the FBI increased substantially relative to the year prior (thanks in part to incidents like the one in Dallas), the number of deaths was still not the highest in the previous decade.
“If we want to bring down violent crime, then we must stand up for our police,” Trump said at one point. “We must confront and condemn dangerous anti-police prejudice.”
Good news on that front, too: The rate of violent crime has plunged over the past 25 years.