458 law enforcement, police officers died in line of duty in 2021: A deeper look at the numbers

Last year marked the deadliest for line-of-duty police and law enforcement officers since 1930, with 458 officers dying in 2021.

The startling preliminary statistic, released Tuesday by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), surpassed the 1930 record of 312 fatalities and reflects a 55% jump in line-of-duty deaths compared to the 295 officer deaths in 2020. The figure accounts for all line-of-duty deaths through Dec. 31, 2021 and represents law enforcement officers at the federal, state, county and municipal levels, as well as those in the tribal, campus, military and territorial sectors.

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Officers line the path four deep as the body of a slain Champaign, Ill., police officer Christopher Oberheim is taken into the coroner’s office, Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in Urbana, Ill.
(Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette via AP)

Covid-19 was the leading cause of 2021 deaths, “and this number appears to be increasing almost daily,” said Troy Anderson, NLEOMF’s executive director of Officer Safety and Wellness, in a video statement about the report.

Firearms-related deaths were the second-highest cause of law enforcement line-of-duty deaths in 2021, followed by traffic fatalities, the report showed. 

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“The magnitude of this type of loss is everlasting in the hearts and minds of those left behind to continue the work of public safety,” Anderson said. “While much of this report is delivered through numbers and statistics, it is paramount that we keep in mind that every number here represents someone’s loved one – a life, a son or daughter, a mother or father. A law enforcement officer who made the ultimate sacrifice for a profession that they believed in and died for.”

NLEOMF CEO Marcia Ferranto called the figure “staggering.”

The group cautioned that the numbers were preliminary, as departments were still reporting data related to 2021 line of duty deaths. 

CAUSES: A DEEPER LOOK 

Covid-19

A member of the LAPD leaves their headquarters on 1st St. in downtown Los Angeles. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A member of the LAPD leaves their headquarters on 1st St. in downtown Los Angeles. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Covid-19-related deaths accounted for 301, or 66%, of the 458 fatalities reported last year. 

The NLEOMF describes these fatalities as being those in which “officers have died due to direct exposure to the virus during the commission of their official duties.”

In this Oct. 5, 2020, file photo, New York Police Department officers in masks, stand during a service at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York to honor 46 colleagues who have died due to COVID-19 related illness. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

In this Oct. 5, 2020, file photo, New York Police Department officers in masks, stand during a service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to honor 46 colleagues who have died due to COVID-19 related illness. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
(AP)

The 301 figure is up 65% from 2020, but researchers “anticipate that a significant number” of fatalities have not yet been fully reported by law enforcement agencies. 

Eighteen states and Washington, D.C. have not reported any Covid-related law enforcement deaths for 2021. Conversely, California, Montana, Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina have recorded seven or more deaths. 

Firearms

Sixty-two officers suffered firearms-related deaths in 2021.

Nineteen officers were ambushed and killed, the report found. Eight others were killed while “investigating suspicious persons/activities,” 14 were killed responding to a domestic disturbance or a disturbance call and seven died after being shot while trying to arrest someone.

Three people were killed responding in-progress burglaries or robberies, three others were killed while enforcing traffic laws and three more died while responding to drug-related cases. 

Two other officers were mortally shot while performing “tactical” duties, two more were inadvertently wounded.

One officer was fatally shot during a “mental crisis,” the report states. 

October was the deadliest month for firearms-related fatalities, with eight officers killed. July and May reported the second-highest numbers, with seven each month. And 32 of the 62 shootings involved handguns. 

Traffic

Fifty-eight law enforcement officers suffered traffic-related fatalities in 2021, a 38% jump from the 42 reported in 2020, the report found. 

The NLEOMF found that 2021 reported a “significantly higher” number of traffic-related deaths compared to the most recent 10-year average, from 2010 to 2019. Anderson said the “dramatic” rise in traffic-related deaths last year was “cause for concern.” 

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The number of officers who died after they were struck by a car reached 27 by the end of 2021 – skyrocketing by 93% compared to 2020, when 14 people died from the same circumstances. 

Meanwhile, 19 officers died as a result of an automobile crash in 2021, and nine died from single-vehicle crashes, the report found. Three more succumbed to injuries related to motorcycle crashes in the line of duty. 

Other law enforcement deaths

The NLEOMF report found that 37 more officers who died in the line of duty succumbed to circumstances different from the categories listed above. 

According to the group, four officers were fatally beaten, four drowned, two were fatally stabbed, one suffered a “floodwater death” and another died in a tornado. 

And 25 officers died tragically “health-related illnesses” in the line of duty. This includes officers who suffered from 9/11-related illness, strokes or heart attacks. 

REMEMBERING THE OFFICERS

A staggering 84 law enforcement officers died in Texas in 2021, the state reported. Florida reported the second-highest number of officers’ lives lost, with 52, while Georgia reported 39 officers died in the line of duty, the group found. 

Just 10 states and Washington, D.C. reported no law enforcement line-of-duty deaths as of Dec. 31, 2021, the group found. 

The average officer was 48 when he or she died, the report states. The youngest officer was 21, while the oldest was 79.

Breaking each death down by jurisdiction, the group found that 165 fallen officers worked for a city police department, while 136 worked for a sheriff’s department. Eighty-five officers worked as state law enforcement. 

Of the 458 officers who died, 417 were men, and 41 were women. The average officer left behind two children.

‘UNDER ATTACK’

Just days before the NLEOMF released its law enforcement fatality report, the head of the Fraternal Order of Police described 2021 as “one of the most dangerous years for law enforcement in recent history.”

In a Jan. 5 press release, FOP National President Patrick Yoes identified causes as being the pandemic, the uptick in violence aimed at law enforcement and “the nationwide crime crisis fueled by rogue prosecutors.” 

The FOP has reported line of duty death statistics that were different from the NLEOMF’s findings.

“At a time when America’s law enforcement is under attack—physically, professionally, rhetorically—we owe it to our more than 364,000 members, the more than 800,000 men and women of law enforcement, and the families of these officers to ensure that the media and the general public are made aware of the real and looming dangers the American police officer is facing,” he wrote. 

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“Despite all of this,” he later added, “the brave men and women of law enforcement will continue to hold the line, stand in between good and evil, and work tirelessly to protect the communities they serve.”

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