Debunking the Myths of the 2013 Law Enforcement Assassination 'Trend'

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Recent killings of law enforcement officials are horrible, shocking news. But there's little reason to think that it marks a new trend, despite the media's shark-attack-style coverage.

The incidents have gotten a lot of attention, including at this site. Prosecutors killed in Texas. A prison official murdered in Colorado. A sheriff in West Virginia shot to death on his lunch break. And they've prompted the expected media response. The Washington Post: "Tension rises" after the recent attacks. Yahoo News: Recent killings "highlight a growing concern." In an interview with NPR, a former law enforcement officer seemed alarmed. Asked if attacks on the criminal justice community are on the rise in North America, Glenn McGovern responded:

They really are. In 2008, there was a huge spike, and that's really when the attacks in Mexico took off. And they were reaching close to 100 a year. And then it kind of dropped down a little bit. And so now you're starting to see a spike in the United States. And when I was going through the numbers last night, it is really unprecedented.

Mexico and the United States are hardly comparable. And, despite McGovern's concerns, there appears to be no reason to worry about a spike in such deaths.

Radley Balko, a reporter for the Huffington Post and author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, has been tracking data on law enforcement deaths for years. When The Atlantic Wire asked him this morning if there was reason for concern, he suggested there wasn't. For one thing, there may be a connection between the Texas and Colorado killings. For another:

[T]he fact that these were higher-ranking law enforcement officials, and that they happened within a short period of time of one another, tends to generate a lot of coverage, which tends to lead to dot-connecting that probably isn't justified.

In short: "I'd be wary of calling this a trend."

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As Balko notes, the data tell the story more directly. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund tracks numbers on law enforcement officer-related fatalities. So far in 2013, the number of officers killed by gunfire has risen a shocking 18 percent — from 11 at this point last year to 13 now. While any death is lamentable, an increase of two homicides is hardly a huge increase. The map below shows where the homicides this year have taken place, if you're wondering — including all deaths, not just shooting.

The FBI also compiles data on law enforcement deaths. Its most recent report, released last year and including data through 2011, indicates that, despite an uptick in 2011, rates at which officers were feloniously killer remained steady.

And 2011 was an outlier. Southern California Public Radio reports that 2012 was far safer. (This data includes all deaths, not just homicides.)

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reports that nationwide, 127 law enforcement officers lost their lives on the job in 2012. That's a 23 percent decrease from 2011 - a year that, along with 2010, recorded historically high fatalities.

Some places are safer than others. As the FBI chart above indicates, the most dangerous region for fatalities is the South. The map below shows the ten-year annual average of law enforcement officer homicides by state.

But all places are relatively safe. On average, one law enforcement officer was killed each year in each state between 2002 and 2011.

The year is still young. It's possible that 2013 could end up being far less safe for law enforcement officials than past years have been. But there's little indication so far that such is the case. High-profile killings make news. They don't make trends.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.