The number of law enforcement officers killed by suspects declined last year, falling to the second-lowest number of such deaths during the Obama administration, according to FBI data released Tuesday.
The FBI’s figures were made public at a time when law enforcement officers say they are feeling under siege during an era of protests against how police officers use force against people of color — and during a year in which officers were shaken by deadly, high-profile ambushes in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
Preliminary statistics show that so far this year, more officers have been fatally shot than during all of last year. There have been 46 officers shot and killed, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a nonprofit that tracks line-of-duty deaths. In a report released earlier this year, the fund said that more than half of the officers killed by that point were shot in ambushes.
Despite the figures this year, statistics show that being a police officer has gotten safer over the past four decades. During the 1970s, an average of 127 police officers were fatally shot each year, according to the memorial fund. Since then, the death toll has continued to decline, falling by more than half, to about 53 officers fatally shot each year during the past decade.
The officers killed last year were shot in 38 of the 41 incidents; three others were slain with vehicles used as weapons, said the FBI, which gathered information from police agencies, field offices and nonprofit groups like the memorial fund. Nearly all of these officers were men. The average age of the officers was 40, and they had served for an average of 12 years when they were killed. Almost half of these deaths occurred in the South, which also had higher rates of homicide and violent crime than other regions last year. Most of the officers killed were wearing body armor.
Law enforcement officials told the FBI that they had identified 37 people as the assailants in these cases. The FBI said 31 of these people had prior criminal arrests, and nine were under judicial supervision when the officers were killed.
Most of the officers died while investigating reports of suspicious people or during tactical situations, such as responding to a barricaded person or a hostage situation, the FBI said. Others were killed during traffic stops, while making arrests or in ambushes.
Last year, 45 officers also died in accidents, most of them car crashes, the FBI said. This number was the same from a year earlier. The FBI also said there were more than 50,000 officers assaulted during policing work, with nearly 3 in 10 (28 percent) of these officers suffering injuries. The most common situation in which an officer was assaulted was when responding to disturbance calls, which accounted for nearly one-third of the assaults.
This year, some of the officers who were shot and killed were doing things as routine as serving a warrant in South Carolina, an eviction notice in Colorado or a domestic disturbance call in Tennessee. There have also been officers who survived being shot at close range, like the Philadelphia officer repeatedly shot by a gunman who later said he pledged loyalty to the Islamic State.
Deaths of officers this year have come amid an intense debate over policing, one that has seen eruptions of anger and fear after shootings by and of police officers. After eight officers were killed during attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge, police said they were uneasy and afraid. Some officers say they keep their guns with them at times they otherwise would not, while others describe feeling unfairly painted as villains. Departments ordered officers to patrol in pairs after the Dallas attack.
Groups that protest police actions have repeatedly denounced violent attacks against officers. Law enforcement agencies, meanwhile, are looking at ways to change training to try and avoid using deadly force. Although changes have been slow to come after two years of protests nationwide, there has been a push to implement training in de-escalation as a way to lower the number of shootings by officers. At the same time, some departments are also confronting a spike in violent crime that has seen homicides increase in some major American cities this year.
In recent days, law enforcement figures have illustrated the complexity of the moment as authorities balance calls for reform with defenses of police officers. On Sunday, FBI Director James B. Comey addressed the International Association of Chiefs of Police and strongly defended officers, saying that they serve during “a uniquely difficult time” and that videos of police shootings have helped cement “a narrative that … biased police are killing black men at epidemic rates.”
Comey said that because so little data is collected on fatal shootings by officers or on other times police use force, “Americans actually have no idea” about how often this happens. Without clear data, he said, “a small group of videos serve as proof of an epidemic.” (Last week, the Justice Department said it was moving forward with a national use-of-force database, though departments would still be able to decide if they want to report nonfatal encounters.)
A day later, Terrence M. Cunningham, head of that police association and chief of the Wellesley, Mass., police, offered a formal apology to the country’s minority population “for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.” Cunningham defended policing as a noble profession, but noted that “events over the past several years have caused many to question the actions of our officers.”
In his speech, he also said the history of policing was filled with “bravery, self-sacrifice” and officers putting themselves in harm’s way.
“Over the years, thousands of police officers have laid down their lives for their fellow citizens while hundreds of thousands more have been injured while protecting their communities,” Cunningham said. “The nation owes all of those officers, as well as those who are still on patrol today, an enormous debt of gratitude.”
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