States Experience Disparity in Police Fatality Rates as Agencies Target Safety

An analysis shows fatality rates vary by state, with most deaths in the South.
by | January 31, 2013

Officer Sean Callahan was only four months on the job with the Clayton County Police Department one afternoon in December when he responded to a domestic dispute at a Georgia motel. As he and another officer attempted to make an arrest, a man fled and began firing rounds, striking Callahan twice in the head. The rookie officer passed away the next morning, becoming the state’s eighth officer of the year to die in the line duty.

Across the country, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund counted 127 fallen police and corrections officers in 2012. The preliminary tally, which includes traffic fatalities and other accidents, fluctuates from year to year and is closely watched in the law enforcement community. To push it down, many public safety departments in all levels of government jumpstarted new policies and training programs in recent years.

The problem appears to be more apparent in some regions of the country than others, with some states recording significantly more deaths. The southeastern U.S. registers the highest death rates given the number of officers, according to a Governing analysis of five years of memorial fund and government employment data. Excluding less populous states with only a few thousand officers, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Georgia and Arkansas were found to have the highest average per capita death rates from 2008 to 2012.

Alabama lost 19 police and corrections officers over the five-year period, with an annual rate of about 8.5 deaths per 50,000 officers. By comparison, Vermont has gone nearly a decade without a death. The state’s last fatality occurred back in November 2003, when an Essex County deputy sheriff lost her life when a truck struck her patrol car.

Regardless of where an officer patrols, an element of danger exists. Traffic accidents, which claimed the lives of 50 officers last year, is typically the leading cause of deaths. Shooting fatalities often stem from traffic stops, domestic disturbance calls or ambush-style attacks. Fewer deaths result from falls, heart attacks or other illnesses, according to memorial fund data.

Total law enforcement fatalities fell sharply in 2012 – declining 23 percent nationwide from 2011 -- after climbing the previous two years. While far fewer officers are killed from when fatalities reached a peak in the 1970s, it’s too early to know whether rates will fall any further.

Craig Floyd, chairman and CEO of the memorial fund, points to the drop in fatalities as evidence agencies are making progress. “There is becoming more of a culture of safety that’s more pervasive in the law enforcement community,” he said.

The following states recorded the highest combined death rates per 50,000 law enforcement and corrections officers over the five-year period:

State Avg. Annual Rate per 50K officers 5-Year Total 2012 Deaths 2011 Deaths 2010 Deaths 2009 Deaths 2008 Deaths
South Dakota 11.5 4 0 3 0 1 0
Montana 10.8 5 0 1 2 1 1
Alabama 8.5 19 3 3 2 5 6
Mississippi 8.2 12 1 2 5 3 1
North Dakota 7.3 2 0 2 0 0 0
Oklahoma 7.2 13 4 2 1 3 3
Georgia 6.8 38 8 10 9 4 7
Arkansas 6.8 11 1 1 3 3 3
Louisiana 6.7 21 5 3 6 2 5
Maine 6.2 3 0 1 1 1 0
Numbers listed are for combined state and local law enforcement and corrections officers. There are less than 5,000 police and corrections employees working statewide in South Dakota, Montana, North Dakota and Maine, so relatively few deaths in these states can have a significant effect on per capita rates.

But do these figures mean it is safer for an officer to serve in one state over another? Robert Kaminski, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina who studies violence against police, said it’s difficult to make direct comparisons between most states, but officers in the southeastern U.S. historically face greater risk.

There are a variety of possible explanations for regional discrepancies, Kaminski said. One theory suggests the South has a deeply rooted subculture of violence, making it a more acceptable response to situations.

Kaminski said the lowest police fatality rates are typically found in the Northeast. New York, for example, lost 24 law enforcement officers from 2008 to 2012, recording the second-lowest average annual fatality rate (behind Vermont). By comparison, 38 officers in Georgia and 21 in Louisiana died, both with a total workforce a fraction of the size of New York.

Erin Vermilye, a manager with International Association of Chiefs of Police, said better safety training could partially explain New York’s lower death rates

“They have a level of training that far surpasses what other states are able to do,” she said. “The fact that they don’t have more fatalities is kind of mind-boggling.”

State laws also factor into the equation. With Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s signature last year, Hawaii became the 50th state to enact a law requiring motorists to slow down and move over when passing emergency vehicles. At the federal level, the International Association of Chiefs of Police supports an assault weapons ban and closing the gun show loophole to require more background checks.

More recently, officer health and wellness surfaced as a major area of concern. Diet, nutrition and metal health all influence officer safety. “If they’re stressed at home, it may play out in the field,” Vermilye said.

Floyd is particularly concerned with violent offenders being released on parole, along with all the potential distractions officers must account for in their patrol cars.

The Fairfax County (Va.) Police Department is unique in that it established its own dedicated safety officer program. Lt. David Pirnat serves as the department’s full-time safety officer, overseeing a staff of 11 others who respond to incidents and assist with training on a part-time basis.

Safety officers monitor training drills for bomb threats, shootings and other scenarios. Pirnat’s team also teaches skills that wouldn’t be part of a typical department’s training regimen. When a storm sweeps through the county, officers often are called on to clear roads, so the department purchased new equipment and trained officers to use a chainsaw safely. Area police also encountered a new wave of chemical suicides, so safety officers outlined guidelines to ensure they aren’t exposed to harmful substances.

Fairfax County’s safety officers further provide vital assistance at the scene of hostage situations, searches for missing persons and other prolonged incidents while police officers on duty are concerned with the task at hand. “The safety officer’s job is to focus on the other direction on the hazards of the environment.” Pirnat said. This includes, for example, ensuring officers are standing outside a blast radius and away from any structures that could collapse. 

Many fire departments have long utilized safety personnel at the scene of fires, but the idea is new for police departments. Neighboring Loudoun County (Va.) is in the process of establishing its own similar program.

Other departments attempt to bolster safety by refining their own internal policies. Some officers, for instance, don’t wear body armor, exposing them to greater risk in shootings and added blunt force trauma in traffic accidents. A Police Executive Research Forum survey found 92 percent of police were required to wear body armor last year, compared to just 59 percent in 2009. Agencies frequently also set other rules to minimize risks, such as when to not engage in vehicle pursuits.

But there’s no single practice that can completely ensure an officer’s safety. Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said preventing fatalities ultimately depends on a mix of training, equipment and a host of other variables.

“It’s very hard to prepare for unpredictable events. Anything can happen on the street,” she said.

Fatalities State Map

Governing compiled fatality data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, along with the number of police and corrections employees working for state and local governments, as estimated in the Census Bureau's Annual Survey of Public Employment and Payroll. The following map illustrates average annual 2008-2012 per capita death rates for law enforcement and corrections officers, with states recording higher rates in dark blue. Click a state to display current and historical data.

Figures do not include federal employees. Please zoom out to view Alaska and Hawaii.

A few notes on the above totals:

-- The NLEOMF counts fatalities for law enforcement and corrections officers. Law enforcement officers account for the vast majority of deaths. Per capita death rates for only police are, therefore, much higher without corrections employees included because corrections employees account for about the same number of officers in many states.

-- Very few police assaults and injuries result in deaths. Other measures should be considered as well when assessing overall officer safety.

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