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Police officers face life threatening situations and behavior each day

By Craig W. Floyd, Chairman of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund

Between 1900 and the end of 1998, a total of 14,010 federal, state and local law enforcement officers in the United States were killed in the line of duty.

The first officer to be killed during the 20th Century was William C. Rooney, a 30-year-old captain with the Colorado Department of Corrections. On Jan. 22, 1900, Rooney was stabbed in the heart during a prison escape and he died. Rooney was also the first of more than 370 correctional officers to be killed in the line of duty during the past century.

Thirty-nine other officers died in the line of duty later in 1900. When compared with the years that followed, though, 1900 was a relatively tame period for the officers who served. During the next 99 years only 1905, with 30 police deaths, proved to be safer. A dangerous turning point for law enforcement came in 1916. That was the first year ever that the number of law officers killed in our country exceeded 100.

As first observed by New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield (Jan. 1, 1997, article), there was a fairly close connection during the past century between the number of police officers killed in the line of duty and the nation's overall homicide rate. There was a dramatic rise in law enforcement fatalities from World War I until 1930, with the number of deaths increasing from 74 in 1914 to a high of 243 in 1930. The nation's murder rate showed a similar climb during that same period, peaking in 1933 at about 10 homicides per 100,000 people in 1933.

The number of police fatalities and the national homicide rate then declined during the 1930s, the '40s and the '50s before both posting sharp increases in the 1960s and '70s. In fact, the deadliest decade on record for law enforcement occurred in the 1970s when a total of 2,215 officers were killed in the line of duty, including an all-time high of 271 in 1974. The average number of law enforcement officers killed each year went from 49 between 1900 and 1909; 95 during the 1910s; 181 during the 1920s; 176 during the 1930s; 100 during the 1940s; 104 during the 1950s; 146 during the 1960s; to 222 during the 1970s.

According to Butterfield's article, "Precisely why violent crime jumped abruptly in the 1960's is poorly understood, though experts have cited the breakdown of traditional authority that accompanied the Vietnam War, the decline of the family and the loss of jobs in the nation's inner cities."

Largely due to the increased use of soft body armor, better training and improved equipment, police deaths have been on the decline for the past two decades. During the 1980's we averaged 187 officer fatalities each year, and in the 1990s we averaged 153. At the same time that deaths were declining, the number of law enforcement officers in our nation grew substantially from roughly 315,000 officers in 1970 to an estimated 740,000 serving today.

During the past century more officers, by far, were killed by firearms than by any other single cause. Nearly 7,000 officers were shot to death, accounting for about 49 percent of all law enforcement fatalities over the past 100 years. The deadliest shoot-out during that period occurred on Jan. 2, 1932, in Springfield, Mo. A suspected cop killer was rumored to be hiding at a house just outside of town. Greene County Missouri Sheriff Marcell C. Hendrix took nine officers with him to make the arrest. The officers were met with a hail of gunfire and six officers, including Hendrix, were killed.

During the early part of the past century, the second leading cause of police deaths were motorcycle accidents. In fact, from 1910 through 1939, there was a total of 485 officers killed in motorcycle accidents, compared to 323 officers who died in automobile accidents. As law enforcement began to increasingly rely more and more on the automobile, motorcycle deaths declined during the latter half of the century, but still accounted for more than 1,000 officer fatalities during the century (7 percent of all deaths). Motorcycle accidents ended the century as the third-leading cause of police deaths.

Automobile accidents were the second-leading cause of police fatalities by the end of the century, resulting in more than 2,000 deaths (15 percent of all deaths). Nearly 1,000 more officers (7 percent of all deaths) were struck and killed by passing motorists while outside of their own vehicles, making this category the fourth-leading cause of law enforcement deaths during the past 100 years. About 315 of these vehicle-related deaths were caused by drunk drivers.

Roughly 61 percent of the officers killed this past century were feloniously assaulted by criminals, and 39 percent died in accidental circumstances (e.g., automobile accidents, aircraft accidents, shooting accidents, etc.)

Approximately 500 law enforcement officers were killed in multiple death incidents during the past century. The first such incident occurred on March 28, 1900, when Birmingham, Ala. Officers George W. Kirkley and J. Wafe Adams were both gunned down by robbery suspects. The deadliest single incident in law enforcement history happened on Nov. 24, 1917, when a suspicious package left outside of a local church was brought to a Milwaukee, Wis. police station for inspection. Before anyone had a chance to investigate, the package exploded and nine officers were killed. The officers who died were Frank Caswin, Paul Weiler, Henry Deckert, Frederick Kaiser, Charles Seehawer, Stephen Stecher, Albert Templin, Edward Spindler and David O'Brien.

Two other incidents, a 1929 riot at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Canyon City Colo., and the 1995 terrorist bombing at the Oklahoma City Federal Building each resulted in the deaths of eight officers.

The average age of the officers killed during the past century was 38 and the average length of service was about eight years. Pulaski County Missouri Night Marshal Dotson "Pop" Sutton, 80, was the oldest officer to die in the line of duty. He was struck by a vehicle while on patrol in 1952. The youngest officers, seven of them, were all 19 years old when they died. In 1919, Thomas Knevet, a Hartford, Conn. police officer, was also struck by a vehicle and killed. He had worked in law enforcement for 44 years, making him the longest serving officer ever to die in the line of duty.

Throughout United States history, there have been a total of 154 female law enforcement officers who have been killed in the line of duty. All of them died during the past century, only nine of them prior to 1970. The first was Anna Hart, a jail matron for the Hamilton County, Ohio Sheriff's Department. On July 24, 1916, jail matron Hart was struck in the head with an iron bedpost by a prisoner who was attempting to escape. In 1999, preliminary information indicates 13 female officers made the ultimate sacrifice, the most ever in a single year.

California had more law officers killed during the past century than any other state, with 1,209 deaths. Vermont had the fewest officers killed, with 14 deaths.

Of the officers who made the ultimate sacrifice over the past 100 years, 60 percent served with municipal departments, 18 percent were county officers, 15 percent served with state agencies, 5 percent were federal officers and 2 percent served with agencies from the U.S. territories.

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