More Police Officers Died From Gunfire Than Traffic Incidents In 2018, Report Says

December 27, 2018

More law enforcement officers were shot and killed in the line of duty in 2018 than last year, driving a 12 percent overall increase in the number of officers who died on the job, according to preliminary data from The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

“Firearms-related fatalities were the leading cause of officer deaths, with 52 officers shot and killed in 2018,” the NLEOMF says. That’s a rise from 2017, when guns were involved in 46 officer deaths.

The group adds that handguns accounted for the majority of those incidents.

So far this year, 144 federal, state and local law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty — a rise from the 129 officers who died on the job in 2017, according to the group’s year-end report for 2018.

The gun statistics reverse what had been a steady trend in recent decades, when police officers were more likely to die from car crashes than gunfire. In 2018, 50 officers died from traffic-related incidents, according to the report.

There has been an average of 55 traffic-related deaths each year in the current decade, with an average of 54 firearm-related deaths. Those numbers are much closer now than they were in the two most recent decades:

  • 2000s: 71 traffic-related deaths; 57 gun-related
  • 1990s: 59 traffic-related deaths; 40 gun-related

The numbers were starkly reversed in the 1980s, when an average of 87 police officers died from gunfire each year, compared to 64 from traffic incidents.

As of 2017, there were more than 950,000 total law enforcement employees and 670,000 officers working in the United States, according to the latest figures published by the FBI. The NLEOMF says the number represents the highest number of police officers ever in the U.S.

The number of police officers per capita varies widely, from a median of 16 or 17 officers for every 10,000 residents in small towns and cities to more than 20 officers for every 10,000 people in large cities, according to analysis by Governing magazine.

Of the officers who died on the job in 2018, the NLEOMF says 134 were male and 10 were female.

“Their average age was 41 years, with 12 years of service. On average, each officer left behind two children,” the report states.

As for what the officers were doing when they suffered their fatal firearm injuries, the report states:

“Of the 52 officer deaths, 14 occurred while officers were attempting to place an individual under arrest. Eight officers were killed while conducting an investigative activity. Six officers were killed responding to domestic disturbance and public disturbance calls, each totaling 12. Five officers were ambushed in 2018, a 50 percent decrease over 2017.” 

The NLEOMF report closely matches data compiled by the FBI, which says the South was the most deadly region for police in 2018, with 24 felonious killings and 26 accidental deaths. Those numbers are more than double the figures for any other region.

The states with the highest number of officer deaths in 2018 were Texas, Florida, California and New York, each of which saw 11 fatalities, according to the NLEOMF.

From the report:

“North Carolina had seven deaths; South Carolina, Georgia, and Indiana each had five. Two territorial officers and nine federal officers also died in 2018. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia did not lose an officer in 2018.”

The NLEOMF data also reveals patterns in not only how the officers died, but when they died.

“The deadliest month for law enforcement in 2018 was May, with 18 fatalities,” the report states. At the other end of the range, August had only five officer fatalities.

Officer deaths also were not evenly distributed from day to day within the week.

“The deadliest day of the week in 2018 was Wednesday, with 26 fatalities,” the NLEOMF said. The safest day was Sunday (14 fatalities), followed closely by Tuesday (15).

Friday and Saturday might have the reputation of being the rowdiest days of the week, but the report puts them in the middle of the pack for officer deaths, with 20 and 21 officer deaths, respectively.

“Most officers, 13 in total, died between 8:00 and 8:59 a.m.,” the report states.

More police officers also died from causes other than traffic and firearms in 2018, rising from 37 in 2017 to 42 this year. Leading causes included heart attacks and strokes, which caused 18 deaths. And 15 officers died due to cancers that the NLEOMF says were “related to search and recovery efforts after the attack on the World Trade Centers on September 11, 2001.”

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.