The murder of three police officers in Baton Rouge earlier this month, less than two weeks after an ambush in Dallas that killed five officers and wounded seven more, created an unmistakable impression: American law enforcement officers are under threat. That impression was bolstered in speeches by Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani at the Republican National Convention last week, and is a feature of Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke’s regular appearances on Fox News, where he describes how “war has been declared on the American police officer.”
A report released Wednesday by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund — a “nonprofit organization dedicated to telling the story of American law enforcement and making it safer for those who serve” — will surely be marshalled to support those pronouncements. The group says 32 law enforcement officers were shot and killed between Jan. 1 and July 20, 2016, compared with 18 during the same span of 2015.
The report adds that there have been 14 “ambush killings” of unsuspecting officers so far this year, versus three in the same period last year. In March, after Jacai Colson, a police officer in Prince George’s County, Md., was shot and killed at a police station, Craig T. Floyd, the CEO of the memorial fund, said in a statement that the high numbers of police deaths “strongly point to a growing disrespect for the rule of law in our nation.”
Other researchers have not reacted with the same alarm. “That’s always a mistake to look at a small portion of time,” says Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University criminologist and former cop who collects and analyzes data on police officers. “The difference is that people are paying attention,” he said. “The stories used to be small and local, now they’re national and international.”
It will not be clear for several years whether the higher numbers for the first half of 2016 represent a trend. The number of law enforcement officers killed while on duty has fluctuated significantly by year, and percentages can look outsized because the total numbers are so small when set against the total number of sworn officers in the U.S. — 900,000, according to the memorial fund.
The numbers compiled by the memorial fund, as well as by a similar website, the Officer Down Memorial Page, are the most recent available. They are from private groups rather than the federal government. The FBI does track how many law enforcement officers are killed “feloniously” each year, but does not release figures in real time; the official government numbers for 2015 have not come out yet (preliminary statistics were published in May), and the counts for this year won't come out until 2017.
The number of police officers shot to death, according to the fund, jumped from 33 in 2013 — the lowest number in more than half a century — to 49 in 2014 (a number interpreted by some as evidence of a war on cops) but then fell to 41 deaths last year. The long-term trend in murder of law enforcement, according to the FBI, has been a decline since the 1970s, while the yearly figures rise and fall with no clear pattern.