How the data disproves the myth of Mayberry

Tracking the number of shootings of police officers demonstrates that the risk rural officers face is measurable and substantial


In March 2020, a seasoned and highly respected Nevada Highway Patrol sergeant stopped on a remote highway near Utah’s border to check on an elderly man whose vehicle appeared to have broken down.

Minutes later, the sergeant died of gunshot wounds near the man’s burning rental car, and his uniform and patrol rig were stolen by the suspect he’d stopped to help.

Sgt. Ben Jenkins had no way of knowing that the apparently stranded motorist was recently released from a mental hospital, that he was obsessed with anti-government conspiracy theories, or that the former chemist was linked to a series of shootings and explosive devices. 

The scene where Nevada Highway Patrol Sgt. Ben Jenkins was killed on March 27, 2020.
The scene where Nevada Highway Patrol Sgt. Ben Jenkins was killed on March 27, 2020. (Used with permission)

Bad things happen in Smalltown, USA

Many of the fallen whose names are engraved on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial this May worked the crowded concrete canyons of big cities – but more than you would expect fell, like Sgt. Jenkins, along isolated highways or small-town streets. Their stories seldom make national news; they work outside the glare of city lights and camera crews, working for departments that are often short-staffed, underfunded and ill-equipped.

Disregarding the experience of about half of the departments in the US, a nostalgic assumption persists that bad things don’t happen in Smalltown, USA. That assumption is wrong; even worse, this durable myth enables a vacuum where staffing, training and functional equipment should be. The myth and the bad decision-making perpetuated by it can, hopefully, be dispelled by evidence.

In 2019 I began tracking the numbers of officers shot, broken down by the populations of the places where they fell. I’m not a statistician, but I couldn’t find the information I needed anywhere else. Tracking shootings captures the risks officers encounter without the murky intent of other sorts of assaults. (A bad guy may argue he didn’t mean to kill the officer he whacked with a pipe, but pulling a trigger is pretty definitive.) Last year’s analysis demonstrated my theory worked, at least once: the risk rural officers face is measurable and substantial. Still, one year is anecdote, not data.

You can view the 2020 numbers here. Let’s see what they say.

POLICE OFFICERS SHOT NATIONWIDE IN 2020

335 officers were shot in 2020.

39 (12%) of them died of their wounds.

40 (12%) were saved by their ballistic vests.

Now we’ll look at smaller places – populations fewer than 30,000 but larger than 11,000. Since no one tracks this stuff, I had to decide on definitions for “small” or “rural” myself, and start there.

POLICE OFFICERS SHOT IN POPULATIONS >11,000 to <30,000 IN 2020
32 officers, or 10% of the total, were shot in 2020.
2 (5% of the national total) of those officers died.
(10% of the national total) were saved by body armor.

As they did in 2019, the numbers went down.

I’ll make the population smaller still, places with fewer than 11,000 residents. Cops work in some really small places; a Kalispell police officer was shot during a barricade at a bar in Trout Creek, Montana, population 158. An officer in Mangham, Louisiana was killed on a traffic stop in his tiny town of 632 people, when he pulled over a robber driving a stolen car.

So:

POLICE OFFICERS SHOT IN POPULATIONS <11,000 IN 2020 
71 officers (21% of the national total) were shot in 2020.
8 (21% of the national total) of those officers died.
5 (13% of the national total) were saved by body armor.

And there it is again: just as in 2019 when I looked at "small towns" (populations between 11K-30K), casualties went down. Then, just as it did the year before when the population got smaller still, casualties went back up. They more than doubled.

We’ll have to keep watching to see if this is a pattern, or just some officers in really small towns with really bad luck, two years in a row. To that end, I’m tracking 2021’s numbers here.

What do these numbers tell us?

The scene where Nevada Highway Patrol Sgt. Ben Jenkins was killed on March 27, 2020. Officers in rural areas don’t just run solo patrol, they can be hours from backup, and just as far from medical care.
The scene where Nevada Highway Patrol Sgt. Ben Jenkins was killed on March 27, 2020. Officers in rural areas don’t just run solo patrol, they can be hours from backup, and just as far from medical care. (Used with permission)

They tell us for certain that officers in rural and remote places absorb a significant chunk of the violence directed at law enforcement over a year’s time. To be more specific, nearly a third of the total officers shot in 2020 were attacked in places with fewer than 30,000 residents, the places I write about. A full 25% of the fatalities were from these areas, as well.

They tell us that officers in rural places need modern protective and communications equipment as much as urban officers do: nearly a quarter of the year’s vest saves happened in small towns and remote areas. For that matter, just a week ago in Boone, NC (population 19,119), a police officer survived an ambush that killed two deputies, because the ballistic helmet he wore protected him.  In other words, a small-town chief valued officer safety more than optics, and it paid off in the difference between two fallen officers and three.

Dig into some of the incidents, and these numbers also tell us that urban violence can migrate into rural settings. One highly publicized example is the slaying of a Santa Cruz County deputy among the redwoods and narrow streets of Ben Lomond, California. The shooting and bombing also wounded another deputy and a CHP officer who both survived – but the violence didn’t start there. It started weeks before, when the suspect, an active duty USAF member affiliated with an extreme accelerationist movement allegedly shot two federal courthouse security officers in Oakland, killing one. The suspect lived in the old logging town, and brought the mayhem back with him from the city, to wreak death and injury there.

The numbers still don’t tell us why the violence fell and then spiked back up so sharply as the populations fell. We know rural areas are disproportionately affected by addiction and mental illness, with few resources to counter the mess. How much impact does this make on officer safety? I don’t know.

Officers in rural areas don’t just run solo patrol, they can be hours from backup, and just as far from medical care. Does this make a difference? It seems like an obvious connection to make, but I have no way to prove it. How much effect does a dead spot in communications make? I don’t know that either.

I do know that the statistics seem to be persistent. As of May 8 this year, 37 of the 103 officers shot so far are from the rural places I track. So are eight of the 14 fatalities, nearly 60%.

Those numbers represent real blood spilled, life-altering, often career-ending wounds, as well as the families destroyed by loss. One year is chance, two years is coincidence, and by this time next year, we’ll know more about whether a real pattern is emerging from these numbers.

The lives of these officers are reason enough to learn more, to understand with clarity what is really happening in the rural and remote places. The myth that “nothing ever happens here” has had its run. Now it needs to go the way of other fairy tales.

NEXT: Learning from deadly LE encounters in rural America

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