The number of U.S. police officers who died in the line of duty is up 43 percent so far this year, according to an organization that honors fallen law enforcement officials.
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund says that if the trend continues, 2010 could become one of the deadliest years for U.S. police agencies in two decades.
The fund was to release preliminary data Wednesday showing that 87 officers died in the line of duty between Jan. 1 and June 30. That's up sharply from 61 officers killed during the first six months of last year.
Last year, on-duty officer deaths hit a 50-year low. So what's behind the increase?
Eugene O'Donnell, professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the number of officer fatalities fluctuates from year to year. However, he said he has noticed an "alarming frequency" of people targeting police.
"There has been a spate of particularly brutal and senseless attacks on the police," said O'Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor in New York. "It seems to me, an unprecedented level of disrespect and willingness to challenge police officers all over the place."
He said a rise in mental health problems and scathing criticism of police, such as the comments found on some blogs, could be fueling the brazenness and disregard for authority.
That sounds like a huge leap. If you look at the National Law Enforcement Fund statistics, 42 of the 87 officer deaths so far this year were from automobile or motorcycle accidents, or from an officer struck by a vehicle. Thirty-one deaths were from gunfire, and 14 were from "other."*
The 31 gunfire deaths so far this year are up from 22 in the first six months of last year. But I wonder what evidence O'Donnell has that would cause him to attribute an additional nine officer deaths among 900,000 active duty cops to an "unprecedented level of disrespect" and a sweeping trend of "scathing criticism" of cops on the Internet. I don't know of a single case last year where there was evidence that an officer's murder could be traced back to anger or resentment on a web forum. I obviously haven't looked into all 31 officer shootings, but if there was even a hint of a suggestion that the Internet motivated someone to kill a cop, it's the sort of salacious detail the media would have lapped up and obsessed over for days. And we'd need quite a few of those incidents to make a trend.
Reporters always look for explanations for these sorts of numbers, even when there may not be one. The number of cops intentionally killed while on duty is small enough—especially when compared to the total number of cops working—that nine additional gunfire deaths over six months may well just be a statistical hiccup. The problem comes when people cite figures like these to call for policy changes, or to defend current policies, that favor police protection over civil liberties. For example, it wouldn't be difficult to envision a politician using O'Donnell's quote to defend a policy of a arresting and imprisoning people who take cell phone videos of on-duty police officers.
(*The NLEF stats don't differentiate homicides from accidental deaths. So it's possible that some of the auto-related or "other" fatalities were homicides, and it's also possible that some of the gunfire-related deaths weren't.)