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A Rise In Traffic Fatalities Leads To A Spike In Law Enforcement Officer Deaths

Police cars line up for a procession in honor of an officer who was fatally shot Monday in Arvada, Colo.
Police cars line up for a procession in honor of an officer who was fatally shot Monday in Arvada, Colo.

Updated June 22, 2021 at 11:44 AM ET

On Monday, 19-year Arvada, Colo., police veteran Gordon Beesley marked another loss for the law enforcement community. Beesley was killed along with two other people during a shooting at a downtown shopping district, authorities said.

He is the fourth Colorado police officer to die on the job this year.

The rate of on-the-job fatalities for police is higher this year than it was at this time in 2020, according to an organization that tracks law enforcement deaths.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reports that as of Monday, 151 total deaths were recorded -- an 11% jump over last year. The number includes federal, state, military, tribal and local law enforcement officer deaths.

The largest share of that rise is due to traffic-related fatalities. There have already been 36 officers killed in traffic, compared with 25 at this point last year — a rise of 44%.

Traffic-related deaths include collisions with other vehicles, single-vehicle crashes, motorcycle crashes and incidents in which officers are struck by vehicles.

An increase in traffic deaths has been seen in the general public as well: U.S. traffic deaths rose 7% last year, even as fewer people drove to work during the pandemic.

Traffic poses the biggest threat to officers

Car crashes and other traffic-related incidents pose the biggest threat to police officers, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the memorial fund.

More than 800 officers died as a result of these incidents from 2006 to 2019. That's 43% of all line-of-duty deaths.

The CDC says behavior-related hazards put officers at particular risk for traffic-related injuries or death on the job. These include not wearing a seat belt, speeding, being distracted while on a device while driving or experiencing tunnel vision from increased stress.

2020 officer deaths tied to COVID-19

Coronavirus infections were the leading cause of death for police officers last year, according to reports. In 2020, 295 officers in total died, with at least 182 dying from COVID-19, according to the memorial fund.

That marked a 300% increase in a cause of death unrelated to firearms or car crashes, the organization said.

The memorial fund marks "other causes," which account for illnesses or medical emergencies such as heart attacks or strokes at work, for resulting in the death of 88 police officers so far this year.

From 2010 to 2019, the leading cause of line-of-duty law enforcement officer deaths was fatal shootings, according to the memorial fund. A reported 528 men and women police officers were shot and killed during those years.

Why 1930 was the deadliest year

2020 saw the most law enforcement deaths since 1930. That year, 312 officers were killed.

The FBI ties much of that to the rise of gangs following the passage of Prohibition in the U.S. in 1920. Law enforcement agencies were "outgunned" and ill-prepared to take on massive gang operations across the country and the rise of the New York Mafia, according to the agency.

"By the early 1930s, cities like St. Paul, Minnesota, had become virtual training grounds for young crooks, while Hot Springs, Arkansas, had turned into a safe haven and even a vacation spot for the criminal underworld," the FBI said. "More often than not, local police forces were hobbled by the lack of modern tools and training."

NPR's Laurel Wamsley contributed to this report.

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