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Accidental line-of-duty deaths of law enforcement officers. (Research Forum).

On a rainy November night in a large southern city, a uniformed patrol officer, 38 years of age with less than 12 years of law enforcement service, was assigned to a one-person, marked patrol vehicle. He received a radio broadcast to respond to assist other officers working a burglary assignment at a local school. The responding officer heard the officers on the scene request help after they observed a male inside the school. He then realized that this was not just another accidental burglary alarm that frequently goes off on rainy nights.

The rain was the first the city had received in over a month, making the asphalt streets very slick. The officer activated his emergency equipment and headed toward the school. At a curve in the roadway, the officer lost control of his vehicle and slid into a tree. He never arrived at the school; he was killed on impact. It took rescue personnel several hours to cut the officer out of the vehicle. The accident reconstruction team estimated his speed at less than 50 miles per hour. This was within the speed limit, but unsafe for the existing road conditions at that time. The officer's death was very traumatic for his department, fellow officers, and the community he served.

Unfortunately, this type of incident is not isolated, and statistics reflect that these types of accidental deaths are increasing throughout the United States. (1) In the past two decades, 1,407 officers have died feloniously in the United States while 1,362 officers have died accidentally. However, in 1998, a startling change in this trend began to emerge. The number of accidental line-of-duty deaths surpassed the number of officers killed by felons. A dramatic shift in 1998 showed that 20 more officers died in accidents (81) than due to criminal action (61). This climb continued in 1999 with 23 more officers dying accidentally (65 to 42) and culminated in 2000 with 33 more officers losing their lives in accidents than in felonious incidents (84 versus 51). (2)

These numbers become more disturbing and of even greater concern when seen in a broader context. Many officers are involved in various types of on-duty accidents that do not result in their death. Unacceptable numbers of these officers are confined to beds, wheelchairs, or otherwise totally disabled. Many others, although not totally disabled, will never work in law enforcement again. Moreover, most officers personally know at least one fellow officer disabled through some type of on-duty accident. Clearly, the law enforcement community must examine ways to reduce these tragedies that increasingly are decimating its ranks.


The authors' experiences and research suggest that many factors have contributed to reducing the number of felonious deaths over recent years. (3) These include improved training practices and procedures and increased supervision directed toward safety concerns during high-risk tactical situations.

To try and uncover what has led to the dramatic increase in accidental line-of-duty deaths, the authors examined 5 years (1996-2000) of data pertaining to these incidents. They had a twofold purpose: first, to describe similarities and differences that surfaced during the examination of accidents that resulted in the deaths of law enforcement officers and, second, to raise a number of questions and issues that officers and administrators should consider to reduce the number of officers accidentally killed in the line of duty.

The authors used data from the FBI's annual Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) report, which contains statistics not only regarding felonious killings but also information about accidental deaths. An analysis of the circumstances in relation to these accidental deaths indicated several factors that the authors compared with the results of their earlier research regarding felonious deaths and assaults. In these previous studies, behavioral descriptors surfaced for officers feloniously killed and assaulted, including being hardworking, not following departmental rules, and tending to perceive themselves as service oriented.

Currently, no behavioral descriptors exist for officers who have died accidentally. However, after reviewing annual LEOKA data and interviewing a limited number of peers and supervisors of officers accidentally killed, the authors found that several characteristics emerged. These included a certain mind-set of some officers who think, "It will never happen to me," regarding the possibility of an accidental, duty-related death. These officers seemed to possess an increasing feeling of invincibility when inside a departmental vehicle. A sense of invincibility often accompanies a higher level of risk-taking behavior. For example, one officer, off duty and driving home in his cruiser, observed a disabled vehicle in an ice storm. The officer stopped in the middle of the highway to determine if the driver needed help and was struck accidentally and killed by a vehicle that had lost control. Consistent with the attributes of officers killed and assaulted in the line of duty, this officer was hardworking and service oriented.

These descriptors pertain to the majority of officers, regardless of their age or years in law enforcement. However, when combined with other factors that the authors have uncovered, these attributes can increase the potential of an accidental fatality. The other factors include an officer's particular level of performance comfort and a lack of in-service training.

Increasing Comfort Level

Officers develop a particular level of performance comfort, or a "comfort zone," by successfully completing various law enforcement tasks over an extended period of time. This comfort zone interacts with their sense of invincibility, enabling officers to take greater risks. These risk-taking behaviors often result in successful outcomes that, in turn, lead to commendations by their agencies for performance above and beyond the call of duty. The greater the risk, the higher the reward. Hardworking officers who observe coworkers win such awards attempt to increase their productivity by learning shortcuts that often involve greater risk-taking behaviors.

Because these officers have succeeded in these high-risk situations for many years, their sense that an accidental fatality "will never happen to me" increases. In 1996, researchers examined 246 situations of law enforcement vehicle pursuits. (4) They concluded that veteran officers were more likely to engage in pursuit of misdemeanor property crime suspects under high-risk conditions than were their less-experienced counterparts.

Diminishing Physical Skills

Operating a police vehicle involves a set of physical skills that officers develop during academy training. Unlike weapon proficiency, where a set of physical skills continually are reinforced through in-service training programs, driving skills rarely, if ever, are augmented through in-service training. This lack of periodic training leads to an eventual erosion of the motor skills needed for emergency driving. One study stated, "Although many police officers and supervisors recognize the inherent dangers of pursuit and are making efforts to control them, this study reveals a lack of initial and continuing training on the issues involved." (5)

In contrast to actuarial data from automobile insurance companies that show males under the age of 25 are more likely to be involved in vehicular accidents, law enforcement officers face a different experience. In law enforcement, once these physical skills have diminished and an increased sense of security has developed, officers in their mid-30s with approximately 10 years of law enforcement experience face a greater risk of dying in a duty-related automobile accident, (6) the primary cause of accidental law enforcement deaths (197 officers died from 1996-2000). (7) The next leading, albeit significantly lower, cause of death involves officers struck and killed while out of their vehicles (59 officers died from 1996-2000). (8) This category includes situations where officers engage in traffic stops, investigate accidents, or render assistance to operators of disabled vehicles. Again, periodic in-service training highlighting the dangers of such activities while providing supplementary instruction in safely handling these assignments could help reduce accidental deaths.


In the authors' previous studies of felonious deaths and assaults on officers, training surfaced as a key factor in reducing the number of felonious deaths and assaults. (9) In reviewing data on accidental deaths, they found that no easy answers exist to the complicated problem of reducing accidental deaths in the law enforcement profession. Rather, they discovered questions, considerations, and factors for agencies to consider within the scope of their own department's size, area of patrol, number and kinds of vehicles, budget, and demographics. Overall, four main issues emerged as needing review: training procedures and tactics, safety supervision, equipment checks, and further data analysis.

Training Procedures

Basic motor vehicle training has helped law enforcement recruits develop successful and safe driving skills. As in other areas of law enforcement safety, agencies should tailor the specifics of training to address their own needs. For example, agencies should use national law enforcement data on accidental deaths only as a point of reference when making decisions that affect local training needs. Weather conditions; roadway construction; volume of vehicular and pedestrian traffic; jurisdictional/geographic size; diverse sizes, types, and manufacturers of vehicles employed; and different departmental policies represent variations that agencies should consider. Managers first should analyze their own department's accidents, as well as those from similar jurisdictions, to identify correctly areas where training will provide the greatest benefit to the patrol officer.

The results of these analyses can assist law enforcement managers in identifying important problems that they can address through in-service training. Common areas of concern may include, but are not be limited to, the following:

* Is speed a primary contributing factor?

* What particular shift or time of day do the accidents generally occur?

* Is fatigue (perhaps resulting from tour of duty, court attendance, overtime, or part-time employment) a possible factor?

* Does a correlation exist between vehicular deaths and officer activity type (e.g., patrol, emergency assistance, nonemergency assignment, vehicle pursuits, or traffic stops)?

Safety Supervision

Subsequent to an accidental, as well as a felonious, death of an officer, many questions occur. Should the officer have initiated a vehicular chase? Should the officer have given or requested more information from the dispatcher before engaging emergency equipment? Should the officer have stopped the chase earlier? Did the officer follow all established policies and guidelines? With closer, timely, and aggressive supervision, some of these questions can be addressed during the activity in question.

When supervisors closely monitor activities within their location, they are more aware of possible dangers that might be reduced before an officer is hurt or killed. This in no way removes the necessary discretion that officers should have in their everyday work. Rather, what supervision might offer is a more objective evaluation of the set of circumstances that has turned into a highly emotional and volatile scene. Agencies should answer some basic questions to discover how they can provide their officers with the best supervision to ensure their safety.

* Have agency managers written and implemented policies for the safe operation of motor vehicles (e.g., the mandatory wearing of seat belts)?

* Do the written policies clearly specify the type of radio assignments designated as emergency situations?

* Do the written policies clearly define when officers may conduct high-speed pursuits and when they must discontinue them?

* Do all supervisors enforce these written policies?

* Does the agency reevaluate and alter the policies as needed?

* Do supervisors ensure that departmental vehicles are inspected regularly and are in compliance with local safety regulations?

* Do supervisors of officers regularly monitor emergency dispatched assignments and individual responses?

* Do supervisors respond to and monitor proper vehicle placement and stop location selection sites for personnel?

* Do supervisors ensure that officers attend periodic safety-related in-service training?

Equipment Checks

Traditionally, equipment checks of vehicles in many departments merely meant that sergeants noted when cruisers or patrol cars received regular service. This frequently covered only such items as changing the oil, ensuring that emergency equipment functioned properly, and repairing major observable damage to the vehicle. Recently, however, a more aggressive approach to vehicle maintenance has begun to entail not only the vehicle but also how an officer operates the vehicle. Supervisors need to become more alert to the dangers in which officers sometimes place themselves by improperly using their vehicles, a tool that sometimes can cause more damage than the weapons they carry. In addition, law enforcement officials and managers should become aware of potential hazards that added features on vehicles (or their absence) could present to officers.

* Are departmental vehicles purchased based on price or safety considerations?

* Are airbags safer than harness restraints?

* Are electronic door locks a help or hindrance in an accident?

* Are vehicles equipped with side air bags necessarily any safer?

* Is the location of the fuel source of the vehicle acceptable by national safety standards?

* Are antilock braking systems required for agency vehicles?

* Is the installation of governors (speed regulators) on agency vehicles feasible, acceptable, desirable, or counterproductive?

* Would wearing a safety helmet by officers operating agency vehicles significantly decrease their chances for injury?

Data Analysis

Differences in the size, type, and location of law enforcement agencies allow for only general recommendations and guidelines regarding the safe use of vehicles in law enforcement. Therefore, agencies should research and analyze what is occurring within their own departments. Agencies of any size might benefit from developing a working relationship with local colleges, universities, and technical institutes to collect and analyze various aspects of the complex phenomenon of accidental deaths in law enforcement. Such institutions may have fresh and innovative insights into this problem. The more information gathered and analyzed, the greater the likelihood that appropriate and applicable answers may be found and, ultimately, result in lives saved.


When law enforcement officers die in the performance of their duties, their agencies, their families and fellow officers, and the communities they serve suffer greatly. While those deaths attributed to criminals represent truly tragic occurrences, those caused by accidents, especially vehicle accidents, often create the additional heartache of unresolved issues about the reasons for these incidents. In the former, agencies capture the offenders and the court system renders justice. In the latter, who resolves an "accident?" The officer is just as dead; the family is just as devastated; the loss is just as tragic, perhaps even more so because it may have been preventable.

Everyone within the law enforcement community hopes that the day will arrive when felonious killings, serious assaults, and accidental deaths are only a part of law enforcement's history. However, realistically, the profession accepts the sad, but inevitable, reality that deaths and assaults will continue to occur. Although they may continue, law enforcement agencies, local governments, civic groups, and academic institutions can work toward reducing their number by analyzing past incidents, developing new training procedures, and reminding officers of the dangers inherent in the profession. The dedicated men and women of law enforcement who tirelessly serve and protect the public deserve no less.
Circumstances of Accidental Deaths 1996-2000

Circumstances Total 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000

Total 344 51 63 81 65 84

Automobile accidents 197 33 33 48 41 42
Motorcycle accidents 23 4 4 3 6 6
Aircraft accidents 19 0 4 4 4 7
Struck by vehicles 59 7 15 14 9 14
 Traffic stops/roadblocks 22 4 4 4 3 7
 Directing traffic/assisting 37 3 11 10 6 7
Accidental shootings 12 2 1 3 3 3
Other (e.g., drownings and falls) 34 5 6 9 2 12

Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Law
Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted 2000 (Washington, DC, 2001),


(1.) U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted 2000 (Washington, DC, 2001).

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Killed in the Line of Duty (Washington, DC, 1992); and Anthony J. Pinizzotto, Edward F. Davis, and Charles E. Miller III, U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, In the Line of Fire (Washington, DC, 1997).

(4.) Geoffrey P. Alpert, Dennis Kenny, Roger Dunham, William Smith, and Michael Cosgrove, U.S. Department of Justice, Institute of Justice, Police Pursuit and the Use of Force (Washington, DC, 1996).

(5.) Geoffrey P. Alpert, U.S. Department of Justice, Police Pursuit: Policies and Training. Research in Brief (Washington, DC, 1997), 7.

(6.) Supra note 1, 73.

(7.) Supra note 1, 64.

(8.) Supra note 1, 64.

(9.) Supra note 3.


* To be of assistance to anyone, the officer must arrive safely.

* A great percentage of electronic alarms are falsely activated.

* Officers must know their physical limitations.

* Officers must understand that their physical limitations increase while driving at night.

* Officers must accept vehicle limitations, especially taking into account weather and road conditions.

* Officers must balance the benefit of a particular arrest with the possible damage to the community and citizens by having an accident.

Characteristics of Officers Killed in Vehicle Accidents

* Mid-3 Os with approximately 10 years of law enforcement service

* Works hard and takes risks

* Possesses sense of invincibility (e.g., "It won't happen to me.")

* Develops performance comfort (e.g., a "comfort zone") from years of successfully carrying out duties

* Lacks motor vehicle in-service or refresher training

* Pursues misdemeanor property crime suspects under high-risk conditions more often than less-experienced counterparts

Dr. Pinizzotto is a clinical forensic psychologist in the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy. Mr. Davis is an instructor in the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy. Mr. Miller is an instructor with the FBI'S Criminal Justice Information Services Division in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
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Article Details
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Author:Miller, Charles E., III
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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