There Is No Trend in Assassinations of Law Enforcement Officers

There have been competing narratives over killings of police officers. Some conservatives claim there is a “War on Police,” a new epidemic of civilians assassinating law enforcement officers, spurred on by President Obama and/or the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Mr. President, you’ve done nothing but tell us we deserve it,” said FOX News host Jeanine Pirro. A week later, she said, “My fear is that the attempt to kill cops – and the killing of cops – is now becoming normalized. It’s now becoming legitimized.”

“Police officers in this country feel they have a target on their back,” said former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. “And I think the reason there’s a target on police officers’ backs is because of groups like Black Lives Matter that make it seem like all police are against blacks.”

William Johnson, a spokesperson for the National Association of Police Organizations, echoed the same sentiments: “It’s a War on Cops, and the Obama administration is the Neville Chamberlain in this war.”

I could easily populate this column with more such quotes, but I will stop here for the sake of brevity.

A number of left-leaning sources, in turn, sharply rebuked this narrative by pointing out that the number of fatalities of law enforcement officers under Obama are the lowest since at least 1979. Even assaults of law enforcement officers are down, so the explanation for the drop in fatalities cannot simply be that medical care has improved to the point that formerly fatal injuries are no longer.

“Data Shows That the ‘War on Cops’ is Fake,” reads a headline on WNYC.

“Police Have Been Safer under Obama Administration Than Every President in 35 Years: Analysis,” said Alternet.

“Police are safer under Obama than they have been in decades,” proclaimed the Washington Post.

However, both sides are not quite reading the data optimally to see whether or not there is a “War on Cops.”

That is because the metric to determine a “war” should not simply be on-the-job fatalities. If there truly is or is not a greater dislike of law enforcement, then a better metric would be assassinations of law enforcement officers – murders where the sole motive of the perpetrator is to deal a blow to law enforcement. That includes both people of color gaining “revenge” for police brutality, and rightwing libertarian/secessionists who have determined that the federal government is tyrannical.

So is there an uptick in police assassinations? Not really. Has there been a decline? Not really.

It turns out that the statistics for police assassinations, also called “ambush situations,” show almost no trend over time. The rate goes up and down mostly randomly from year-to-year.

Thought Front began by looking at the raw numbers from the Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) data compiled by the FBI, some of which is also archived by the University at Albany.

The data was then compared to the number of full-time law enforcement officers in the United States, as reported in the US Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of Public Employment and Payroll (ASPEP), an imperfect data source but still respectable.

Rate of Assassinations Among Law Enforcement Officers by Year, 1992-2012


Sources: FBI LEOKA, Census Bureau ASPEP
Notes: There was no ASPEP in 1996, so Thought Front used an average of 1995 and 1997. In 2011, ASPEP concluded that Illinois’s data was unreliable, and used an average of 2010 and 2012.

Based on the years available for this data, the rate of assassinations of law enforcement officers is largely random. There was a downtick when Obama became president, but the rate has gone up since 2012, the last year for which ASPEP data was available.

But the ASPEP data only goes from 1992 through 2012. What are the numbers since polarizing police murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and numerous others? Surely recent incidents such as the assassinations of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos means there must be an uptick. Right?

Well, in order to expand the timeline, Thought Front compared LEOKA data to the US population at the time. Based on those metrics, it is possible to view trends from 1979 through 2015.

Rate of Law Enforcement Officer Assassinations Among US Population, by Year


Sources: FBI LEOKA, populations based on July of each year as reported by 2015 assassination data based on Officer Down Memorial Page.

Indeed, based on this data there has been an uptick since 2012, although the rate is still substantially lower than in past times. But again, there are no strong trends, other than a notable decrease from 1979 through 1989.

Why no trends? Well, perhaps different political winds are not as relevant to those assassinating law enforcement officers, who in perhaps all cases suffer from a degree of mental illness. And given the low numbers we are working with (ranging from 4 to 16), small changes from year-to-year show up as marked differences.

So is there a new “War on Cops”? The evidence does not show it, unless there continues to be an uptick in assassinations.

Meanwhile, is there a newfound respect for law enforcement? Well, far fewer officers die on the job, but since the 90’s there is no clear increase or decrease in officers assassinated by people with an ideological agenda.

Instead, it seems to be mostly random how many mentally ill people in a given year hate law enforcement enough to assassinate officers.