Analysis: NLEOMF's mid-year report on police fatalities for 2021
COVID-19 infections all but doubled the losses, while "struck by" fatalities are up 138% over similar deaths in 2020
On July 13, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) released its mid-year report on law enforcement officer fatalities (full report available below). These reports are always grim, but this most recent issue is even more tragic than usual: 155 federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement officers died in the first half of 2021. This is more than died in the first half of 2020, which was the second-worst year in history for officer fatalities. You must go back almost 100 years to 1930 to find a year where more law enforcement officers died.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken more cops away from us than any other single cause. Seventy-one officers died after contracting the viral infection, representing 46% of the total number of LODDs this year to date.
Although most law enforcement agencies have changed their operational procedures to keep COVID-19 infections to a minimum, the nature of policing makes it all but impossible for officers to avoid the disease. Police officers are constantly interacting with the homeless and other persons with risk-prone, unhygienic lifestyles. They do not have the option of refusing encounters with the segment of the population most likely to be infected. Preventative measures to avoid the virus lower the risk of infection but do not eliminate it.
In 2020, prophylactic measures such as face masks and disposable gloves, with frequent handwashing, were about the only means police officers had to limit their risk of infection. 2021 saw the first vaccines become available, and now virtually any American who wants to be vaccinated can get the shot at no cost. Still, some officers have refused vaccination, often because of an unfounded fear of side effects or other unwanted consequences. Some healthcare employees who have refused to be vaccinated have lost their jobs for refusing to comply with a mandate to get the vaccine. This practice has not yet manifested in law enforcement agencies but is a distinct possibility, now that COVID-related police deaths account for almost half of all line-of-duty fatalities.
Traffic-related deaths: Struck-by fatalities
Another disturbing trend in police fatalities is a rise in traffic-related deaths. Thirty-eight officers died in vehicle collisions or after being struck by another vehicle while at the side of the road on a traffic stop or accident investigation. “Struck by” fatalities are up 138% (eight in the first half of 2020, compared to 19 for the same period in 2021) over similar deaths in 2020.
This statistic calls for greater vigilance during these incidents, even when most officers might perceive the greater threat is from a deliberate assault during a traffic stop. It might be time to consider a new application of the “contact and cover” strategy, where one officer deals with the business of the roadside investigation, while the other keeps a lookout for incoming hazards.
[Police1 resource: Why Traffic Incident Management (TIM) programs keep cops safe]
Traffic-related deaths: Single-vehicle accidents
Officer deaths after being involved in single-vehicle accidents are comparable to the same period in 2020, with six single-vehicle fatalities in 2020 compared to five in 2021. This underscores a common problem in law enforcement, that of officers with unjustified confidence in their ability to drive their vehicles at high speeds, often under inclement conditions. A common story is to have an officer report they are en route to an incident then never arrive. When the officer’s colleagues retrace their route, they find the officer’s car upside down at the side of the road, with the officer dead. Some of these incidents would have been survivable had the officer been wearing a seat belt.
This common scenario calls for improved and more frequent emergency vehicle operation training, but also for better vigilance by supervisors when they see officers not using seat belts or driving outside the envelope of their capabilities.
Other causes of death
The “other causes” category of officer fatalities in 2021 also suggests changes to police lifestyles are required, particularly around physical fitness. In the first half of 2021, 10 officers died of causes related to overexertion, such as heart attack and stroke. Three officers died from being beaten to death, three others drowned and two more were stabbed to death.
Law enforcement officers frequently begin their careers in the best shape of their lives, having completed a police academy where physical fitness is a required part of the curriculum. Once they start work in active law enforcement, there are no more required runs, no push-ups or sit-ups, and the only immediate consequence of gaining weight is having to buy new uniforms.
Police agencies can put into place incentive programs for maintaining a high level of physical fitness, but there is no disincentive for letting oneself go. Officers can get through years of police work without being physically overtaxed, then one day find themselves up against someone who is younger, stronger, and more physically resilient than they are.
It might be possible for agencies to put into place a physical fitness standard that is a condition of employment. Those officers already employed at the agency would be exempt, but new hires could be compelled to pass a fitness test every year. Those not meeting the standard would be offered a conditioning program, but the fitness standard would have to be met eventually if the officer wanted to keep their job.
[Police1 resource: How to maintain adequate LEO physical fitness]
Demographically, officer fatalities followed a predictable pattern. California, Texas and Georgia, all relatively populous states, saw the largest number of fatalities. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia had no fatalities at all. Fifteen of the fallen worked for federal agencies. Ninety-two percent of the fatalities were male. One slain officer had been on the job only two months; the fallen officer who had served the longest had 44 years on the job. Ages ranged from 24 to 71 years old.
The power of simple measures
Law enforcement is an inherently risky profession, and it is unlikely we will ever eliminate deadly threats from the police workplace. That doesn’t mean that the risk can’t be managed. Simple measures like vaccination and wearing seat belts can have a meaningful impact on the number of fatalities. Every law enforcement officer owes it to themselves and to their co-workers to reduce risk whenever possible, and to encourage others to do the same. This is an area where peer pressure can have a decidedly positive effect.