Police Deaths Climb to 4-Year-High

Law enforcement deaths jumped this year to the highest total since 2007.

Officer John David Dryer pulled over a motorist late Sunday night near Washington, Pa., a small town outside of Pittsburgh, and began conducting what appeared to be a routine traffic stop.

The driver, Eli Franklin Myers III, was uninsured and had an expired registration. But when Dryer informed Myers his car would be towed, investigators said Myers pulled out a gun and fatally shot Dryer in the head.

The 46-year-old part-time member of the East Washington Police Department was the 171st law enforcement officer to die in the line of duty this year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

The death toll is the highest since 2007 and represents a 16 percent increase from this time last year. The Memorial Fund, a Washington-based nonprofit group honoring fallen officers, includes traffic-related deaths and other incidents in the totals.

While the numbers indicate 2011 has been a deadly year for law enforcement, they aren't conclusive enough to affirm any long term trends.

Steve Groeninger, the Memorial Fund's communications director, said his group is particularly concerned about the effects of budget cuts on local departments.

“As forces shrink, officers are being asked to do more with less,” he said. “Maybe they are approaching cases and calls differently.”

Recent studies highlight the extent to which some departments scaled back.

A survey conducted earlier this year by the Major Cities Chiefs Association reported 78 percent of city police departments experienced budget cuts, with an average reduction of 5.4 percent. Slightly less than half of respondents reported flat or reduced budgets within the past three years.

Fewer resources often result in agencies scaling back on safety-related training programs, Groeninger said. There is currently no data, though, linking budget cuts to officer safety.

Of the 171 total deaths as of Monday, 90 fallen officers worked for city departments. County agencies, followed by state departments, accounted for the next most fatalities, according to data provided by the Memorial Fund.

More than five officers have died in the following states so far this year:

State Total
Texas 13
Florida 12
New York 11
California 10
Georgia 10
Ohio 7
Tennessee 7
North Carolina 7
Missouri 6

Groeninger suggested an anti-authority sentiment may also play a role in officer safety.

James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, said officers in uniform  symbolize government and can become targets for individuals looking to vent their frustrations. However, there is no evidence correlating police officer safety to anti-government attitudes.

"There have been mini-massacres of police officers, but I don't see it as open season," Fox said.

But with concealed carry laws, Fox said armed citizens could pose a greater risk to officers. "The more people who are carrying guns concealed can make their jobs a little more dangerous," he said.

Firearms-related fatalities account for much of the recent hike in fatalities. The Memorial Fund tallied 63 officer deaths involving firearms this year, a 19 percent jump from 2010.

Still, Fox said the Memorial Fund's historical figures (shown below) do not necessarily indicate an upward trend in violence against police officers.

Fatality totals have remained relatively steady over the past 20 years. A recent peak occurred in 2001, when 72 law enforcement officers died in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"We can say 2011 was a bad year," Fox said. "It's very possible 2012 will be lower."


Yearly U.S. Law Enforcement Officer Deaths: 1990- Present

Source: National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Information current as of 12/19/2011

Mike Maciag is Data Editor for GOVERNING.