In 2021, 129 officers died in the line of duty, according to the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted database. Seventy-three of those officers were killed feloniously, almost entirely by firearms. However, law enforcement does not rank in the top ten most deadly professions in the US, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The FBI collects data from law enforcement agencies in the US on assaults and deaths of officers. Deaths are broken down into two categories: felonious, meaning purposefully killed, and accidental. The available data only includes deaths occurring on the job. It doesn’t include work-related exposures that may lead to illness or death. COVID-19, 9/11-related illnesses, and suicides are all excluded from the data[1].

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What is the top cause of death for police officers on duty?

Felonious killings were the top cause of death for law enforcement officers on duty, reaching a 25-year high in 2021, with 73 deaths. The majority of killings were committed using a firearm, which is consistent for the last 25 years of data. Five of the felonious killings in 2021 were unprovoked attacks on law enforcement officers. The rest occurred during regular police activity such as traffic stops or investigations.

Fifty-six officers were accidentally killed in 2021. Fifty-two of those deaths came from motor vehicle crashes. Accidental deaths of law enforcement officers on the job decreased sharply after 2012. A National Institute of Justice study addresses some reasons for the decline.

For example, one common cause of accidental deaths is when officers exit a vehicle on the roadway, which makes it more likely they’ll be struck by other vehicles.

The study showed that agencies that increased training and required reflective gear for patrol officers had fewer accidental deaths after exiting vehicles. Additionally, better airbag technology and increased seat belt usage helped prevent deaths while driving.

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Which areas of the US had the highest number of law enforcement officers killed on duty?

Fourteen officers were killed in cities with less than 10,000 residents, the highest amount of any city size. Metropolitan and nonmetropolitan[2] police departments had similar amounts of deaths, at 13 and 12 officers killed respectively.

Seventy officers were killed in the South, more than three times the rate of any other region. The South also has roughly double the amount of law enforcement officers than any other region, according to BLS employment data.

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Law enforcement is not the deadliest profession.

Law enforcement does not rank in the top ten most deadly professions in the US. BLS ranked the professions by number of on-the-job fatalities per 100,000 full-time employees for 2020. Fishing and hunting workers had the highest fatality rate at 132 deaths per 100,000 workers. There were about 32,000 full-time fishing and hunting workers as of 2020. For law enforcement, that rate was about 13 deaths per 100,000 officers. This places law enforcement as the 18th highest industry for on-the-job deaths. There were about 665,000 people working full-time in law enforcement in 2020.

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For more data on law enforcement in the US, check out the USAFacts Crime & Justice metrics.

Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted
Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, 2020
Occupational Employment and Wages: Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers
[1]

Metropolitan police departments are associated with city and towns. Nonmetropolitan police departments are associated with counties and states.

[2]

The 2001 data excludes the 72 officers who died in the 9/11 attacks.