Monday, the FBI reported that the number of U.S. police officers killed while working in 2014 had nearly doubled, to 51, from the previous year. The federal government’s release of the data comes days after two Hattiesburg, Mississippi, police officers were fatally shot during a traffic stop. It comes at a time when the country is engaged in a fierce debate about law enforcement’s delicate relationship with citizens.
New U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Monday released a statement about the Mississippi police officers that read, in part: “The murder of these young men is a devastating reminder that the work our brave police officers perform every day is extremely dangerous, profoundly heroic, and deeply deserving of our unequivocal support.”
At first glance, the increase in police officers killed while working may seem startling. It is certainly tragic. But anomaly was 2013, when 27 police officers were killed, marking the lowest number in 35 years. Between 1980 and 2014, an average of 64 police officers were killed each year, which means 2014 was still below average.
“One year does not tell the whole story,” said Tom Nolan, a former Boston police officer who is now a criminology professor at Merrimack College. “We would be doing a disservice to law enforcement to say that what went on last year in Ferguson resulted in this marked increase in line-of-duty deaths. I think this is another year that is fairly consistent in the long-term trend of the number of officers being killed feloniously becoming lower and lower.”
It’s worth remembering that the federal government does not authoritatively track the number of civilians killed by police officers. State and local police departments are not required to report such deaths to the federal government. This has resulted in a hodgepodge of spotty data. It has also effectively put the job of documenting and analyzing police killings of civilians into the hands of activists at organizations such as Mapping Police Violence. Earlier this year, President Obama’s criminal justice reform task force recommended stronger reporting of officer-involved fatalities.
“It’s to the benefit of law enforcement—as well as civilians—to report this data,” Nolan told TakePart. “If there’s a department that has statistically and significantly fewer deaths at the hands of officers, I’d want to know what they’re doing and look to those success stories.”