WASHINGTON — A record number of fatal traffic incidents and a double-digit spike in shooting deaths led to one of the deadliest years for law enforcement officers in more than a decade.
With the exception of 2001, which saw a dramatic increase in deaths because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 2007 was the deadliest year for law enforcement since 1989, according to preliminary data released jointly by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and Concerns of Police Survivors.
The report counted the deaths of 186 officers as of Dec. 26, up from 145 last year. Eighty-one died in traffic incidents, which the report said surpassed their record of 78 set in 2000. Shooting deaths increased from 52 to 69, a rise of about 33 percent.
"Most of us don't realize that an officer is being killed in America on average every other day," said Craig W. Floyd, chairman of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Officer fatalities have generally declined since peaking at 277 in 1974, the report said. Historically, officers have been more likely to be killed in an attack than to die accidentally and shootings outnumbered car crashes. But those trends began to reverse in the late 1990s. This year, about six of every 10 deaths were accidental.
Floyd credited technology improvements with helping reverse the trend. Safety vests save lives and non-lethal devices such as electric stun guns prevent some fatal encounters, he said. He attributed the spike in shooting deaths to the increase in violent crime nationwide.
"Law enforcement is the front line against violent criminals," he said.
Of the 81 traffic deaths this year, 60 officers died in car crashes, 15 were hit by cars and six died in motorcycle crashes.
Police departments have worked to limit high-speed chases and only seven of the car crashes were attributed to such pursuits, Floyd said. Crashes involving a single police cruiser responding to a call were far more common, he said.
After traffic crashes and shootings, physical causes such as heart attacks were the leading cause of death, contributing to 18 fatalities. Other causes of death included smaller categories such as airplane and boating accidents, for an additional 18 fatalities.
Texas led the nation with 22 fatalities followed by Florida (16), New York (12), and California (11). The report includes the death of 17 federal law enforcement officers, including five Air Force Office of Special Investigations agents killed in two bombings in Iraq.
The report counted six times in which multiple officers were shot and killed in the same incident, such as the September shooting in Odessa, Texas that left three officers dead while responding to a domestic violence call. Domestic violence and traffic stops were the circumstances that most commonly led to fatal police shootings this year, the report found.
The average age of officers who died in 2007 was 39. Most were men and had served an average of about 11 years in law enforcement.
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