Annual ‘Officers Killed’ Report More Than a Tally of Losses
The FBI’s annual Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) report that was released late last week details in chilling narratives and statistics how 76 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty in 2013.
While the LEOKA report offers a stark reminder of the dangers police face every day, the main reason for gathering the comprehensive data about line-of-duty fatalities, assaults, and accidents is to prevent them from occurring in the future. In addition to collecting details about the critical aspects of fatal confrontations and assaults, the FBI’s LEOKA program conducts extensive research on the data that eventually gets incorporated into the officer safety awareness training the FBI provides for partner agencies.
The motivations for killers of law enforcement officers to talk to the FBI about their cases are as varied as the circumstances that landed them in prison. Interviews are only conducted if a case has run its course and appeals have been exhausted. The prison interviews are unannounced and the only promise to offenders is anonymity. More often than not, offenders agree to talk on tape about what they did. “We tell them that we are here to try to help people,” said James Sheets of the LEOKA program. “And we also tell them that very few people know their side of the story, and this is a perfect opportunity for them to give us their side and help us understand why they did what they did.”
For officers who were victims of assaults or witnessed fellow officers get killed or assaulted, the interviews are a way to help fellow law enforcement. “Most police officers,” Sheets said, “want to share their experience—even if it was a mistake—just so others won’t make the same mistake they did.”
“It’s a three-prong program,” said Brian McAllister, a training instructor for LEOKA, a unit in the Bureau’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division. “LEOKA is about data, it’s about research, and it’s about training.”
The data is collected from participating agencies across the country as part of the Uniform Crime Reporting Program and is published in conjunction with Crime in the United States, the FBI’s annual dissemination of crime statistics. Over the years, researchers led by the LEOKA program have performed deep-dives into the data and published research aimed at giving officers a sharper understanding of what types of scenarios and circumstances have resulted in fatalities and assaults—and how to avoid them. The research delves well beyond statistics to include in-depth interviews with officers who were victims of assaults or involved in incidents that resulted in officer fatalities. The LEOKA program staff—former police officers—also interview the perpetrators of police deaths, hoping to provide a window into what compelled them to make a fatal move on a law enforcement officer.
For rookie and veteran officers going through LEOKA’s Officer Safety Awareness Training, it’s these first-hand accounts that bring the job’s dangers to the fore. “It’s a wake-up call for officers in the class to see and listen to an interview with an offender who has killed a police officer,” said McAllister, who conducts some of the interviews in addition to teaching the eight-hour seminars.
“It makes a huge impact on these guys,” said Lt. Herb Rosenbaum, of the Trussville Police Department near Birmingham, Alabama. “When we’re out on the road, we all have a tendency to fall into a routine. You’ve made a thousand traffic stops and you’ve never been challenged. This brings it back to the forefront.”
The LEOKA program has released three multi-year studies tailored toward improving officer safety—Killed in the Line of Duty (1992), In the Line of Fire (1997), and Violent Encounters (2006). Each zeroed in on a subset of fatality and assault cases in prior years and looked for common threads that might illustrate better ways to assess or respond to a situation.
More recent statistics have shown a significant uptick in ambushes and unprovoked attacks on police, which prompted the LEOKA program to embark on a new study in 2013 that will include the unique perspectives of ambush victims and perpetrators. The study, due out in 2016, is reviewing cases from 1995 to 2011, looking for general themes of offender motives and officer perceptions.
“We want to figure out why the offenders were doing what they were doing and how the police officers reacted to see if there’s anything we can link in the study that would enhance police officer safety,” said James Sheets, a LEOKA training instructor.
Special Agent Michael Freeman, who coordinates training for the Norfolk (Virginia) Field Office, said LEOKA training is popular with police departments and other agencies in his region. He said the sobering information and first-person accounts help ensure against complacency. “What adds so much value,” Freeman said, “is receiving the perception of the offender and why that individual made the decision to challenge that law enforcement professional.”