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Research: Rural cops absorb a disproportionately high rate of damage from felonious gunfire

By quantifying what is happening in rural places, there can be no excuse for failure to train, equip and staff rural police to modern, professional standards


The community comes together to honor and memorialize Sgt. Chris Ward and Deputy Logan Fox who were shot and killed during a lengthy standoff in Watauga County, North Carolina, on April 28, 2021.

“Mr. Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time is enemy action.” — Ian Fleming, “Goldfinger,” 1959

The scattered, hyperlocal nature of U.S. policing means that critical incidents in rural and remote places are overshadowed by those in urban centers with their larger, louder media outlets. What little coverage exists of violence against the officers I write about, the ones who work for more than half of the nation’s departments, is fleeting. The fallen leave their mark on broken families and the gray limestone walls of the National Law Enforcement Memorial. Surviving officers are allotted a mention by a rookie news anchor and then, invisibility.

The enduring myth that bad things don’t happen in small towns undermines a reality of blood and sacrifice, of careers ended and plans destroyed. In a data-driven world, anything uncounted seems not to exist – even officers hurt and killed in the line of duty.

To fill this void, I began tracking the numbers of officers shot, broken down by population where they fell, in 2019. If I can quantify what I see happening in rural places, then there will be no excuse for failure to train, equip and staff rural police to modern, professional standards.

The extraordinarily violent year of 2021 cemented the pattern I suspected and have been working to prove: for three consecutive years, officers in rural and remote places have made up a substantial portion of our nation’s wounded and killed LEOs.

The casualties came in clusters: during the week beginning on February 19, 2021, seven officers were shot. Five of them, and the only vest save, were in small towns from California to North Carolina.

The week beginning on February 26 saw eight officers shot, only one in a town larger than 12,000 residents. While the news cameras were focused on the murder of a Tulane officer at a high school football game, two rural officers died in two days: Dominic “Nick” J. Winum was ambushed in his car in Stanley, Virginia, and Lieutenant Justin Bedwell, who was shot in tiny Brinson, Georgia, was transported more than 50 miles to a trauma center in a valiant effort to save his life.

The same day the lieutenant died, a Minnesota deputy was wounded in an ambush on a traffic stop near a village of 778 residents. His backup officer was also shot, and saved by his vest. Chilling footage of the shootout was captured by the officers’ dash cameras.

Mass casualties of rural and small-town officers are rare since solo patrol and understaffing mean officers are often alone. Nevertheless, they happen. There were two in April 2021 alone, one in Georgia where three officers were shot and one was saved by his vest. Three more were shot in Watauga County, North Carolina, in the last week of April; two deputies died – Sergeant Chris Ward and K-9 Deputy Logan Fox – and a Boone police officer was saved by his ballistic helmet.

The pattern of shootings in remote places continued throughout the year: a tribal officer killed in Red Lake, Minnesota, a law enforcement park ranger saved by his vest in Rocky Mountain National Park. A Nunapitchuk Village Police officer was shot by a DUI suspect in a swampy Alaska village accessible by aircraft, hovercraft, or boat; an Alaska State Trooper was wounded but survived thanks to his vest in Anchor Point.

The stories are compelling, but anecdote isn’t data, so I’m going to work my way back to the numbers.

Why track shootings rather than all the dozens of ways cops get hurt?

Because I aim to convince skeptics that there’s a pattern of felonious violence against cops no matter where they work, and other assaults leave room for doubt about intent. Maybe the bad guy meant to run the officer over, or maybe he overcorrected. Maybe the bad guy meant to bean the officer with a flagpole, but he didn’t intend to kill him. When the bad guy points a gun and pulls the trigger, intent to harm is clear.

Which shootings count?

Any shooting of sworn officers on duty or off who are carrying out official duties. My numbers differ from LEOKA because “rural” describes places, not officer types; I don’t separate out federal or tribal officers from local and state. I can’t find a standard definition for rural, so I made my own (gotta start somewhere). I note incidents that happen in places with fewer than 30,000 residents, and then break it down further to those in places with fewer than 11,000 residents. I check maps to try to avoid mistaking a suburb for an actual small town. It’s not a perfect system but it’s a place to start.

Each morning I search Google News for “officer shot,” “deputy shot” and so on. I cross-reference my findings against Gun Violence Archive’s database. They have a page tracking officers shot but it’s unreliable, often including security guards, accidental shootings, injuries that weren’t caused by gunfire, or K-9 casualties. Still, sometimes they find something I miss. I don’t include accidents or blue on blue resulting from bad marksmanship or range mishaps. I do include friendly fire if the officer would not have been shot except for the criminal behavior of a suspect.

In both 2019 and 2020, about a third of officers shot and a quarter of those killed by felonious gunfire were from the rural and remote places I write about. Let’s take a look at the numbers for 2021, and see how they work out.

Officers Shot Nationwide in 2021

374 officers were shot in 2021

60 (16%) died of their wounds
36 (9.6%) were saved by ballistic armor (vest/helmet)

Overall officers shot and fatality rates increased; armor saves fell slightly, from 12% the year before.

Officers Shot in Populations >11,000 to <30,000 in 2021

45 officers, or 12% of the national total, were shot in 2021
10 (17% of the national total) died of their wounds
5 (14% of the national total) were saved by armor

That seems about right; smaller places, smaller numbers. Compared to the past two years, however, both the percentage of officers shot and the percentage of fatalities compared to the overall rate increased for this set of officers. So did the fatality rate within this group, 22% in 2021, up from 6% in 2020 and about 3% in 2019.

I’ll make the population smaller once more:

Officers Shot in Populations <11,000 in 2021

85 (23% of the national total) were shot in 2021

18 (30% of the national total) died of their wounds
11 (31% of the national total) were saved by armor

The pattern is holding: instead of going down, casualty numbers from the smallest towns nearly doubled compared to the next larger set. The number of armor saves more than doubled when the size of the population decreased. The armor saves are a double-edged sword: while it’s good that officers from little places had armor, you can’t have a lot of saves if there aren’t a lot of officers getting shot.

It’s no longer happenstance or coincidence. For the third year in a row, officers from small towns and rural places have absorbed what appears to be a disproportionately high rate of damage from felonious gunfire. While the public is conditioned by national news coverage to stereotype urban centers as dangerous and “the country” as Mayberry, an imaginary small town where bad things don’t happen and the sheriff doesn’t need a gun, that stereotype isn’t reality. In real life, small-town officers represented more than a third of the officers shot last year and nearly half – half – of the fatalities.

Now What?

Now I keep going. Here’s the sheet for 2022 already underway. I had two goals when I began this project: one, to gain the attention of a real researcher somewhere who could lend credibility to these numbers (maybe the FBI or BJS? Or both??). I am encouraged by the stubbornness and strength of Blue Help: they began as amateurs with a homemade project to track first responder suicides and force the powers-that-be to work toward changing a dismal reality. Because they persisted, the FBI added a new table to LEOKA with professional statisticians and researchers onboard. Therefore, I know it can happen.

My second goal is for these numbers and patterns to provide leverage for officers and department heads in rural places to obtain modern, professional levels of staffing, training and equipment. Normalcy bias (it’s never happened here, therefore it won’t happen here) provides excuses for leadership failures when it comes to planning and providing for local law enforcement. It can happen, anywhere. It has. It will.

No town is so small or so special that it is exempt from reality. Buy the tourniquets. Install the cages in the cars. Replace the expired vests. Bring your agency training up to professional standards, no matter how few officers work there. Do whatever it takes to get radios that work, and hire quality candidates to fill the openings that leave your officers alone and at risk.

I can’t say for sure why the casualty numbers from rural places stay so high. My best two guesses are:

  1. Distance from sophisticated trauma care chewing away at the Golden Hour.
  2. Solo officers with no one to aid them when they get hurt.

There’s video footage all over the internet right now featuring a dozen bystanders aiding a wounded CHP officer in San Diego. Citizens applied pressure to his wound, kicked the gun away from the suspect and detained him (at knifepoint, yikes), and brought the officer the radio he couldn’t reach to call for aid. A nurse pulled over to take charge of the officer’s care and get a real tourniquet in place. The odds of a bleeding rural officer attracting that much immediate aid are slim. The odds of a rural officer even having a backup officer or radio coverage can be slim.

We observe National Police Week in May, honoring the fallen, the survivors and those left behind. While we’re at it, let’s honor those still on the streets by acknowledging the risks they face and working to improve their odds. I said earlier that things uncounted don’t exist. These officers exist. They are counted, and they count. Now let’s get them what they need, wherever they need it, to have a better chance at coming home safely.

NEXT: How supported do rural officers feel? Interpreting the data from Police1’s State of the Industry survey

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.