January 2, 2008 The Pump Handle 1Comment

The town of Odessa, Texas had never had a police officer die in the line of duty in its 73-year history. That changed in September 2007, when three Odessa officers, Arlie Jones, 48, Abel Marquez, 32 and Scott Gardner, 30 were gunned down responding to a domestic disturbance complaint.*  These three worker-victims were among the 186 law enforcement officers killed on the job in 2007—a 28 percent increase in fatalities compared to 2006.  The National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund which tracks officers’ in-the-line-of-duty deaths, reports 2007 was the deadliest year for this cohort since 1989.**  The Fund’s data indicates:

  • 69 officers were shot and killed in 2007, up 33 percent from 2006
  • there were six incidents in which two or more officers were gunned down and killed
  • 81 officers died in traffic-related incidents, up nearly 10 percent from 2006
  • 41 states had officers killed in the line of duty, as did D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands

The report also notes:

  • the states with the highest number of officer deaths are also the states with the largest populations: Texas (22 officer deaths), Florida (16 officer deaths), New York (12 officer deaths), and California (11 officer deaths).

Based on overall state population, the rate of death per 1,000,000 population were significantly higher in Texas and Florida (i.e., 0.92 and 0.88, respectively) compared to California (i.e., 0.30).

  • The average age of the officers killed on the job was 39.4 years, with an average 11.4 years of service. 

Can deaths of police officers be prevented?  The International Association of Chiefs of Police believes so and thinks a good place to start would be a ban on armor-piercing handgun ammunication and high-caliber rifles.  The IACP’s legislative agenda includes these issues as well as proposals to reinvigorate the Brady Bill, protect communities’ rights to pass strict laws on concealed weapons, and institute registries for offenders of firearms laws.

About 44 percent of the officers’ deaths involved traffic-related incidents, with 60 of the 81 deaths (74%) in automobile crashes.  In a 2005 study examining police vehicle crashes, the risk of death was 2.6 times higher for a driver or occupant who was not wearing a seatbelt, and (surprising to me) the use of a seatbelt was not statistically related to emergency versus nonemergency calls.*** 

This data suggests that a significant number of officers’ deaths could be prevented by ensuring that police vehicles have seatbelts that work properly and that officers use them.  Moreover, it seems like there is a problem in some police departments concerning the officer’s in-vehicle laptops conflicting electronically or physically with the airbag’s computer system or console.  Where this occurs, the choice is between their laptops (which the officer needs to do his job) or the airbag.  Alas, those airbag disengagement buttons are coming in handy, but I’d like to see the data on the number of automobile deaths involving police officers and the rate of airbag installation and deployment in their vehicles.  This might be another area ripe for a public health intervention.

In a year when we’ll be hearing endlessly from some of the presidential candidates about homeland security, I hope they think more about the physical and emotional health of our police officers and ways to better protect them, and less on huge contracts for border fences.



*Read more about the deaths of the Odessa, Texas officers here 

**Excluding the year 2001 when the 9/11 attacks claimed 72 officers’ lives.  The 2001 total was 239, of which 30 percent  were killed in the World Trade Center attack.

***Von Kuenssberg Jehle D, Wagner DG, et al. Seat Belt Use By Police: Should They Click It?  Journal of Trauma-Injury Infection & Critical Care, January 2005; 58(1):119-120.

One thought on “2007: A Deadly Year for Law Enforcement Officers

  1. Nationally, 37% of occupant victims of traffic collisions were wearing seatbelts. When 100% of occupants wear seatbelts, 100% of victims will be wearing seatbelts. Seatbelts are effective, but they modify the main effect of the root cause, which is the collision. Likely the high proportion of non-seat belt use among fatality victims arises from a combination of other risk behaviors with seat belt non-use: alcohol use, late at night, speeding, younger age and male. Speeding could be substantially reduced by automated camera enforcement of speed limits.

    Skimming the police publication, the fraction of police collision victims not wearing seatbelts wasn’t clear. In the cited study, with 80% seatbelt use, the majority of victims were wearing seatbelts.

    Likely the most important intervention is to limit high speed chases, a danger to police and the public. Personally, I would dictate that where only a traffic violation triggers the need to stop a vehicle, police should simply photograph the vehicle and enforce at leisure, just as they do with red light and speeding cameras. The number of police shot during a roadside traffic stop should also be taken into account in implementing such a policy.

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