Five-Year Study of Police Officer Deaths: RoboCops or Guardians? | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

The study below from the Department of Justice and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund provides vital data as to protecting the safety of police officers. Both should be congratulated for the valuable effort.

Our Observations

We find it interesting, with all the criticism over the lack of data on police-involved shootings, that “the” definitive study of police officer deaths is finally being made public. We have news for people who are critical of the lack of good research when it comes to law enforcement and crime control; get used to it. We could fill endless pages regarding suggestions for better data (i.e., why does crime increase or decrease?).

Will the Washington Post continue this research as they have done with police-involved shootings? Nope. Didn’t think so. Dead cops aren’t their priority. By the way, we support their database of police-involved shootings.

The report also gets us back to the discussion of police officers as “warriors” or “guardians” per the recently offered President’s Commission on 21st Century Policing.

Based on the report, there was criticism of police in the popular press as being too military in their appearance and tactics.

From the report below: “As indicated by an analysis of weapons used against officers, and the fact that 21 percent of officers were shot by suspects using high powered rifles, there is a need to evaluate the issuance of hard body armor, helmets, and ballistic shields that can be quickly-deployed in high-risk incidents. Additionally, the use of ballistic panels for vehicle doors should be evaluated.”

We present the observation solely to illustrate the dilemma of the “warriors” or “guardians” discussion. Are officers to take on the appearance of RoboCops fully dressed in armor or having armored vehicles?

We don’t dispute the need for safety, only the juxtaposition between two federal reports, one emphasizing the need to be publically approachable “guardians” and the other suggesting that cops armor-up.

Yes, we understand that the armor suggestion is in relation to the use of high-powered weapons against the police, but please tell us, what community does not contain its fair share of powerful weapons or dangerous situations?

Which federal report are we supposed to embrace, RoboCop or officer friendly? We are being a bit unfair, we understand what the report is saying, but it’s an interesting observation nevertheless.

Executive Summary

In 2015, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) entered into a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice COPS office to study officer line-of duty deaths.

This report is a five-year study analyzing line-of-duty deaths in which a total of 684 cases were reviewed.

Specifically, the analysis focused on cases that involved a dispatched call for service which required a police response and what information was made available to responding officers in the deadliest calls for service.

Armed with this information, researchers were then asked with determining if any commonalities existed that could be used as learning tools to prevent future deadly calls or fatal encounters.


As this report was being finalized, the nation is reeling from the ambush shooting deaths of five Dallas, TX police officers, followed days later by a similar attack on uniformed officers in Baton Rouge, LA in which three officers were killed. These ambushes of uniformed police officers have lead police departments from New York to Los Angeles to deploy patrol officers in pairs for greater safety.

This report concluded that having two or more officers on the scene of a call for service is safer and provides the additional support needed if a fatal encounter occurs. The researchers are not emphasizing two-man patrols but believe there is inherent safety of having multiple officers on the scene of those calls for service that are potentially dangerous and violent.

Publications such as the “One Man, Two-Man Debate” Criminal Justice Publications in 1978 reported that it was safer and more fiscally sound for single officer patrols when compared to two-man patrols and this debate seems to be a constant discussion in law enforcement with varying opinions.

This study, despite there being no statistical demonstration that two officers on a scene are less likely to sustain fatal assaults compared to just one, demonstrates that when there are multiple officers on the scene, particularly on domestic related calls, the number of fatal assaults drops.

The researchers also concluded that two officers handling a call, regardless of call type, are better than one because in almost all the fatal calls and deadly encounters examined, the secondary officer was able to stop the deadly assault by the perpetrator, request assistance, provide immediate first aid, and control the scene.

There have also been studies that, contrary to this report’s findings, indicated that officers are more likely to be killed or injured while responding to robberies and burglaries compared to domestic violence calls. In a study of 771 law enforcement deaths from 1996-2009, “When Officers Die: Understanding Deadly Domestic Violence Call for Service,” The Police Chief magazine, the researchers concluded that there was a myth regarding the greater danger posed by domestic violence calls and their research actually supports a different set of call types being more dangerous.

Analysis of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund fatality data shows that domestic-related calls for service resulted in 22 percent of officer fatalities within the five-year study period; more than any other type of call.

The research further found that domestic-related disputes were the underlying cause in other calls for service not initially dispatched as domestic-related. In one of those fatal encounters, an officer was investigating a seemingly unrelated traffic complaint. In a 2005 article titled “Fatal Errors: Surviving Domestic Violence Calls, Police,” The Law Enforcement Magazine, the author echoes the findings of this report by emphasizing the importance of waiting for back up officers, avoiding complacency, using team work, and mentions the importance officer weapon retention.

These fundamental steps apply to all calls for service; not just domestic violence calls. Leadership, solid training, and clear policy are the foundation on which many of the outlined recommendations can be achieved and future repetition of these cases be prevented.

The path has to be set from the top and filter its way down to the officers answering the radio and out enforcing the law. All the facets of law enforcement must be involved in making the job safer; from the call taker to the dispatcher to the field supervisor to the officer answering the call.

They are all part of a chain of information and communication that should make responding to these deadly calls for service safer. Accurate information, good communications, and the proper exchange of information between call takers, dispatchers, responding officers, and supervisors is critical to the safety of officers and citizens alike. And dispatchers must continually check on the welfare of officers handling calls, especially on priority high-risk assignments.

Accurate information on the type of call, the parties involved and any background knowledge regarding the person, place, or vehicle involved can have a dramatic impact on the eventual outcome of the incident. In many of these deadly incidents, officers were dispatched alone or failed to wait and coordinate with their assisting officers.

Information sharing is vital and once a call for service comes into a 911 center, barracks, or station, the dispatcher should be working diligently to provide those responding to the call as much information as possible to enhance safety and allow for a more educated approach.

Equally important is the exchange of information between officers and between the officer and dispatcher once they have arrived at the call location. The many scenarios and case studies that were described in the report reinforce the patience and diligence required by officers when investigating complaints or making investigatory stops, to provide their precise location and a description of the vehicle or persons being stopped.

This fact is highlighted by the cases studied in which a single officer was on a call, or on a stop, or investigating a suspicious vehicle, and was found deceased by another officer or civilian.

The report also identified instances when officers did not wait for the assisting dispatched unit before making contact. Similarly, researchers identified cases of officers requesting assistance, but instead entered homes, or moved to arrest a suspect, before the assistance arrived.

Another key takeaway in the variety of cases studied was that first line supervisors must address and correct bad habits of their officers, such as not calling in their stops or not waiting for backup before entering a location.

Supervisors must also take charge of coordinating responses to potentially deadly scenes such as Officer Needs Assistance, Shots Fired, Burglary in Progress, and Robbery in Progress calls.

This report emphasizes the idea that no call is routine and that dispatchers and officers must not become complacent and fall into a false sense of security when answering seemingly minor calls such as noise complaints, or alarms.

Dispatchers and supervisors must also ensure that there is coordination and communication between jurisdictions when there is a multi-agency response. All officers responding to a call for service must be fully aware of the circumstances, background, and any other relevant information before arriving at the scene. They must know who their backup is, their distance from the scene and what the officer is wearing if they are not in uniform or in a marked patrol vehicle.

This report also revealed the need for continuing training in traffic stops and tactical approaches to vehicles. The right-side approach can be the safest approach from a tactical standpoint as well as a roadway safety standpoint.

As indicated by an analysis of weapons used against officers, and the fact that 21 percent of officers were shot by suspects using high powered rifles, there is a need to evaluate the issuance of hard body armor, helmets, and ballistic shields that can be quickly-deployed in high-risk incidents. Additionally, the use of ballistic panels for vehicle doors should be evaluated. Finally, the report and its findings identify three steps that can be immediately addressed by supervisors and peers in every law enforcement agency: encourage officers to slow down when responding to calls (specifically, Officer Needs Assistance calls), wear seatbelts, and wear issued body armor.

Summary of Findings

This analysis of law enforcement deaths yielded the following summary of findings for law enforcement chief executives and practitioners:

Calls for Service-Calls related to domestic disputes and domestic-related incidents represented the highest number of fatal types of calls for service and were also the underlying cause of several other calls for service that resulted in law enforcement fatalities.

Calls that were classified as disturbances, such as disorderly persons, noise complaints, or nuisance violations were the next largest category of call type in which responding officers were killed, accounting for 18 percent of the total call type analyzed.

Thirty-four percent of the officers killed in the study of calls for service were alone when they were assaulted. In 12 of those cases, officers had been dispatched alone.

In 45 percent of all the cases in which officers were responding to a dispatched call for service that ended in a fatality, the officers had been advised the suspect(s) might be armed, or they had made prior threats. This number represents calls from all of the categories.

A small but significant number (8 percent) of officers arriving first on the scene of a call took action by themselves, rather than coordinate with the backup officers they had requested or the additional units already en-route.

Twenty percent of the suspects in the cases examined were classified as mentally ill.

Self-Initiated Enforcement Activity

Sixty-three percent of officers who were killed while engaged in self-initiated action were conducting a traffic stop for vehicle enforcement.

The next largest categories of activity were officers stopping suspicious persons or suspicious vehicles representing 17 percent and 12 percent, respectively.

Fifty percent of the fatal cases involving traffic stops involved only one occupant in the stopped vehicle.

In 42 percent of the fatal traffic stop cases, the officers were assaulted while speaking to the occupants of the car.

Officers had notified the dispatcher of their location and provided vehicle information in 22 of the 26 traffic stop cases examined.

Officers are at a disadvantage as they make contact with suspicious persons and drivers because they cannot predict how the suspect(s) will react, or fully understand the situation to which they are responding.

Officers were slain with handguns in 71 percent of all the cases studied and with a rifle in 21 percent of the cases. Shotguns were used in 8 percent of the cases.

Traffic-related Fatalities

Crashes accounted for a high number of police fatalities over the five-year period totaling 211 deaths, of which 78 of those were responding to a dispatched call for service. Ø

Of those 78, 53 percent were responding to an Officer Needs Assistance call or a radio request for emergency assistance from a fellow officer.

Summary of Recommendations:

Greater emphasis should be placed on the need for two officers to respond to calls for service and that officers should wait for the secondary unit or the backup assistance they requested before acting.

Improve communications and information sharing for officers on the street who are responding to calls for service. Call history, warrants and arrest history for the location and any previously identified mental health issues should be readily available.

Conduct dispatcher and supervisory training to better coordinate responses to high priority calls such as Officer Needs Assistance, Robbery in Progress, and Shots Fired. Ensure that domestic violence cases are monitored closely and that dispatchers challenge officers for their welfare regularly when they are on the scene of a high priority call.

Multijurisdictional and wide-scale interagency responses to calls and dynamic scenes must de-conflicted to prevent friendly fire incidents and officers who are assigned together should be trained together.

Officers must be empowered to lead at all levels in order to better handle rapidly evolving dynamic situations.

Consider the use of ear pieces with radios to prevent suspects from hearing returns on name checks and license checks, which could prompt them to assault officers or flee.

Seek out available free training such as the DOJ’s VALOR’s curriculum entitled Recognizing the Characteristics of an Armed Suspect, as well as Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) to better identify and assist those with mental illness.

Consider training officers on passenger-side approaches during traffic stops to increase the officer’s tactical advantage and reduce the likelihood of being struck by a passing vehicle.

Policies must be examined and put in place to reinforce the training and further create a culture of safety among officers and agencies.

Agencies should consider equipping all patrol officers with electronic control devices and incorporate them into their use of force training curriculum.

First line supervisors must correct dangerous behaviors such as complacency, speeding, not wearing seatbelts, not wearing issued body armor and failing to wait for backup before taking action.

The researchers recognize that waiting for backup is not always possible as situations can evolve rapidly and officers may have to act unilaterally to save a life.


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