What Are The Lethal Risks of US Police Work?

report posted 2009-05-22 - last updated 2016-10-14
J. Edgar's got the gat

J. Edgar's got the gat (Life Magazine photo)

Lethal risks of police work: how much and what type?

When police die by the gun while working, national leaders claim that the risks of police work are 'enormous' and 'lethal'. Yet police killings shock the nation, and clearly are viewed as extraordinary events.

This is a puzzling inconsistency: if the lethal risk truly is 'enormous', then why should we be surprised when police die on the job?

So just how much and what type of lethal risk do police typically face? This 2009 ad hoc study of data provided on the websites of the FBI and US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) offers some clues.

Key Findings

Fatality rate more than average, but far below manual laborers and cab drivers

A 1999 BLS study showed that during 1992-1997 the average fatality rate for law enforcement was nearly three times the risk for the average worker.

But the study also lists the 15 occupations with the highest fatality rates for 1997. Law enforcement ranked #14: just above electrician, just below non-construction laborers, and well below farming, roofers, truck and cab drivers, and construction laborers. The highest risk occupations - timber cutter, fisher, seaman, and aircraft pilot - had fatality rates 7-9 times the fatality rate of police.

BLS fatality data for 2006 showed police still not in the top 10 of high-risk occupations, still ranked at #14. Police had risk well below that of refuse workers.

Homicide risk more than average, but not greater than the risk of death from traffic incident or fall

The 1999 BLS study showed that during 1992-97 police risk of workplace homicide was about 8 times the national average.

But the study also showed that almost as many fatalities were cause by transportation incidents. In total, the risk of homicide was less than the risk of fatality from some other cause. A police fatality from transportation incident or fall was as likely as a homicide.

BLS fatality event data for the years 2003-06 showed that transportation incidents had become the leading cause of fatalities in police work. This was because the number of transportation fatalities remained steady, while the number of homicides declined. The risk of transportation-related fatality was over 40% greater than the risk of homicide.

Trend: Homicides decreasing, accidental deaths increasing

FBI data show that the number of law enforcement officers killed in homicides has steadily been declining since the early 1970's.

Meanwhile, in the last decade, the number of accidental deaths of law enforcement officers have been increasing.

Trend: Risk of homicide in police work consistently a distant second to the risk of homicide while driving a taxicab

BLS data from 1995 showed that the homicide risk of driving taxi was four times that of police work. Using 1998 data BLS revealed the consistent trend, in an article titled Taxicabs have by far the greatest work-related homicide risk.


Follow the links below to see the data, charts, and details of analysis (opens in new window or tab).