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Data shatters the small-town myth about law enforcement safety

A compelling look into the stark realities faced by rural police officers through a rigorous five-year data collection effort

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Procession for Douglas County (Colo.) Deputy Zack Parrish, EOW 12/31/2017. Photo by Rachel.

“Don’t give up! I believe in you all. A person’s a person, no matter how small! And you very small persons will not have to die. If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!” – Horton Hears a Who, by Dr. Seuss

I’m trying, but rural officers are still dying.

It’s the Myth of Mayberry: nothing ever happens here, and because nothing has, nothing will. Myths aren’t real but hard numbers are. The hard facts are that, since I started tracking the number of officers shot in 2019, the percentage of rural officers killed, always disproportionately high, has crept even higher. After five years of steady data collection, I can finally say these numbers represent a statistically significant trend. It’s not anecdote, it’s not a fluke, and the damage won’t be mitigated without intentional intervention.

Why track the number of officers shot?

I started the tracking project, breaking down each incident by where it happens, because the number of officers hurt and killed in rural and remote places seemed to be higher than they should be. I wanted to know if what I saw was real or a figment of my own bias.

How do I track officer shootings? Why just shootings?

I track shootings instead of all of the ways officers can get assaulted because it’s harder to argue intent (maybe the bad guy meant to run the officer over or maybe he overcorrected) and because it nearly always makes the news, so it’s a little easier to find reports.

My numbers will be different from those reported by LEOKA, ODMP and NFOP, as those all also differ from each other.

I include any sworn law enforcement officer feloniously shot in the 50 states, who is on duty or acting in a law enforcement capacity at the time of the incident. I don’t include blue-on-blue, accidental, or self-inflicted shootings unless the actions of a suspect precipitated the shooting, and I don’t separate federal officers from local or state.

I start each search by checking Gun Violence Archive, but I cross-check each cited incident; some of them turn out to be accidental, or a K-9, or a security guard rather than an LEO. Then I search news headlines with specific terms like “officer shot,” “deputy shot,” “trooper shot” and so on through all the titles I can think of, including game wardens, tribal officers and the word “agent.” Even searching plurals can turn up incidents that otherwise evaded headlines.

Then I find current population counts and density for the location and search a map to make sure a small town isn’t a suburb on the fringe of a much larger metro. Because there aren’t solid definitions for small towns or remote places, I focus on two categories: any place with one to 11,000 residents, and then 11,001 to 30,000 residents. They’re arbitrary classifications, but I had to start somewhere.

I list the dates, agencies and total officers shot, and tally fatalities and armor saves. You can see the spreadsheets and fact-check me here, here, here, here and here. Last year, the National Fraternal Order of Police began sharing its ambush information with me, so I added a field for that, too.

What kind of incidents did we see this year?

I’m not a professional researcher, and I’m not a statistician, just a writer who can count. Nevertheless, my research is (very slowly) starting to pay off, judging by an email I got last fall from a reporter in Minnesota.

Rural cops in Minnesota and western Wisconsin got absolutely clobbered in 2023: 14 officers shot (12 in just a six-month period), and four killed, by October. MPR News writer Dan Gunderson wanted to talk to me about the shootings because he couldn’t find anyone else who tracked violence against rural officers. It’s just one article, but it was detailed and thorough and proves someone besides me is paying attention.

The violence came in waves in 2023. In the first week of January, six officers were shot, four of them in the places I write about. That included the year’s first fatality, a small town Pennsylvania police chief killed during a foot pursuit, and two vest saves, one a Border Patrol agent shot by a human smuggler at a remote desert checkpoint. In fact, all five of the vest saves in January were in small towns and rural places, including two of the many Minnesota officers shot in 2023, and another small town chief in Texas. By the end of January, a total of 33 officers had been shot, 15 in the places I write about. Of the three officers killed by gunfire in January, only one was in a town bigger than 25,000 residents.

The year continued like that, with numbers cycling up and down from month to month. On April 8, two western Wisconsin officers from tiny towns backed each other up on a traffic stop and died together on a country road, part of the spate of shootings addressed by the MNPR writer. During the week of April 9-16, 10 officers were shot; only two were in places with a population larger than 6000 people. That included three more Minnesota officers who were shot in Cyrus (population 310) on April 15. One was saved by body armor. Another died at the rural critical-access hospital a few hours later on his 44th birthday. On the same day, a reserve officer was shot and killed in an eastern Oregon farm town of just 3,000 people.

So it went, from May to June (which saw eight more small-town officers shot in just the week of the 11-18, two of them fatally), to the last officer shot on December 30. When I first started this project, multiple casualty incidents with rural officers appeared rare. In 2022, however, there were several, and there were four more in 2023: three incidents with three officers downed (one in Kansas, one in Maryland, and the one in Cyrus, Minnesota), and yet another in Minnesota with five officers shot including two vest saves.

So…show me the numbers.

Officers Shot Nationwide in 2023
358 total officers were shot in 2023
39 died of their wounds
35 were saved by ballistic armor (vest/helmet)
104 were shot in ambush attacks

Overall the number of officers shot rose somewhat, from 335 in 2022 to 358, but fatalities fell from 56 to 39. Armor saves fell as well, from 40 to 35. The ambush numbers are new this year, and represent 29% of the overall attacks, just under a third.

Let’s break those numbers down into smaller places.

Officers Shot in Populations >11,000 to <30,000 in 2023
19 officers (5% of the national total) were shot in 2023
3 (8% of the national total) died of their wounds
2 (6% of the national total) were saved by ballistic armor (vest/helmet)
8 (8% of the national) were shot in ambush attacks

As one could expect, smaller places mean a relatively small number of officers shot, and the numbers did not vary significantly from 2022.

Let’s look at the smallest places now.

Officers Shot in Populations <11,000 in 2023
95 officers (27% of the nationwide total) were shot in 2023
19 (49% of the nationwide total) died of their wounds
11 (31% of the nationwide total) were saved by ballistic armor (vest/helmet)
27 (26% of the nationwide total) were shot in ambush attacks

There it is again. The population goes down, and so does the number of officers shot. It only makes sense, right? But then the population goes down again, and the number of officers shot goes…up. Way up. For five years running, the number of officers shot in the smallest of towns is higher (in this case, five times higher) than the number of officers shot in the next larger population set.

When we look at all rural incidents together, they represent about one-third of the total officers shot, but more than half of the officers killed - 56%, in fact.

Taken a different way, an urban officer shot has about a one in fifteen chance of dying. A rural officer? One in five. Those are bad odds.

And rural officers weren’t immune to targeted violence, either. According to the data shared by the NFOP, 34% of the ambush attacks they track happened in the places I write about.

One real concern I have is that rural officers keep growing as a percentage of overall officers killed. Look here:

In 2019, they were 24%.

In 2020, 25%

In 2021, 47%

In 2022 45%.

In 2023, 56%.

Resign yourself to saving space on the memorial wall in Washington DC because, at this rate, there will be dozens of rural officers added to it next year too.

Now what?

Now, I keep asking why this trend exists and what needs to change to derail it. Why did the percentage of fatalities go down overall, but not for rural officers?

Distance from sophisticated trauma care is almost certainly a factor, but it’s also one that can’t be changed. The things that can be changed must be identified, and what is identified must be fixed.

Communication may well be one of those things. So is staffing: urban officers almost never answer calls or make stops solo. Someone always knows where they are, and they also have the potential for immediate aid. It’s also possible that bad guys hesitate more when officers are not alone.

How much effect does training have? What about equipment like tourniquets and up-to-date, fitted body armor?

Right now we don’t know the answer to any of these questions, because no one except me is asking. Instead, the satisfying, soft blanket of normalcy bias allows both communities and leadership to continue as they always have, because “nothing ever happens here.”

I’m here to yank that blanket away. Stand in the cold with me and look hard at the fallen of 2023, both the dead and the survivors whose lives will never be the same. We fail if we honor their memories with ceremony and stone without trying to give the officers who follow them a better chance.

For all of my adult life, I lived in progressively smaller and more remote mountain towns. The last town I called Whoville: the place that’s so small, no one even knows it’s there and that can’t make itself heard over the racket from all the big places. In the book, Horton told the people of Whoville to join together and make as much noise as they possibly could, because their lives depended on it.

Make some noise with me.

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.
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