Research review: Police officer nonfatal injuries on the rise

Cops are three times more likely to sustain a nonfatal injury at work than all other U.S. workers, and injuries from assaults are on the rise


By Hope M. Tiesman, PhD

Much is known about on-duty fatalities among police officers; however, data on non-fatal injuries is nearly non-existent.

This month, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published an article in the “American Journal of Preventive Medicine” on non-fatal injuries among law enforcement officers that shows that officers are three times more likely to sustain a nonfatal injury at work than all other U.S. workers.

This study is the first to look at both intentional and unintentional nonfatal injuries among officers on a national scale.

Using injury data obtained from U.S. emergency departments, the study provides a national description of nonfatal, emergency department-treated injuries occurring to U.S. law enforcement officers between 2003 and 2014. This study was different from previous data collection efforts that focused on only one type of injury and that relied on voluntary reporting systems such as the FBI’s LEOKA.

Overall, we found that nonfatal injury rates for officers remain quite high compared to all other U.S. workers and that the nonfatal injury rate did substantively increase. This is in spite of a decline in overall worker injury rates.

Much of the increase was due to the high number and corresponding significant increase of assault-related injuries. In fact, this is the first study to demonstrate an upward national trend in assault-related injuries among police officers. Our main findings are:

  • About 669,100 law enforcement officers were treated in emergency departments across the nation for non-fatal injuries between 2003 and 2014.
  • The overall non-fatal injury rate of 635 per 10,000 full-time equivalents was three times higher than all other U.S. workers rate (213 per 10,000 full-time equivalents).
  • The nonfatal injury trend for law enforcement officers increased across the 12-year period and this was in contrast with the trend for all other U.S. workers, which significantly decreased.
  • Assault-related injury rates significantly increased about 10% annually from 2003 to 2011.

The leading causes of injury were:

  • Assaults & violent acts (36%),
  • Body motion injuries such as overexertion from running and repetitive motion injuries (15%),
  • Transportation incidents (14%), and
  • Contact with objects and equipment (13%).

The finding that injury rates for police officers were almost triple that of other workers was not a surprise to the authors. Law enforcement officers have had historically high rates of both fatal and nonfatal injuries. We know that officers can encounter highly unpredictable and dangerous situations, making it difficult to fully plan prevention strategies and tactics in advance.

Much of the increase was due to the high number and corresponding significant increase of assault-related injuries. (Photo/NIOSH)
Much of the increase was due to the high number and corresponding significant increase of assault-related injuries. (Photo/NIOSH)

What we were not able to determine from this study is why there was an increase in injuries due to assaults. We do not know if it indicates a more dangerous risk environment for officers or other potential reasons such as simple policy changes that required officers to visit emergency departments to document police-civilian encounters.

More research is currently underway at NIOSH to better understand assault injuries treated in the emergency department. However, the injury data is somewhat limited. Therefore, in addition to these data analyses, NIOSH is also using the emergency department data as a spring board to a larger national study.

The study is being conducted with leading criminologists and the Police Foundation to interview officers who visit emergency departments for on-duty injuries. The study will lead to a better understanding of nonfatal injuries on a national scale. This will be the first of its kind and is imperative for the development of evidence-based policing strategies and tactics.

Police-civilian interactions are dynamic encounters

Many law enforcement agencies already recognize that police-civilian interactions are dynamic social encounters where use of force can occur when an officer seeks to maintain control during resistance. The likelihood of injury to officers and civilians depends partially on the level of resistance by the civilian, as well as the force applied by the officer.

A complete understanding of the dynamics of police encounters that result in force is critical to effectively reduce assault-related injuries to law enforcement officers, as well as associated injuries to civilians. Stakeholders and researchers should look at how the use of force affects both police officers and civilians, not just one or the other. The field is in need of better and more evidence-based science behind the policing strategies and tactics that protect both the officer and the civilian.


About the author
Hope M. Tiesman, PhD, is a research epidemiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). She received her PhD in epidemiology at the University of Iowa where she was an occupational injury prevention fellow at the Heartland Center for Occupational Health & Safety. She has published extensively in the field of occupational injuries and worked with various occupations including the U.S. military, healthcare workers and police officers. She also serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police Research Advisory Council. Her research interests include the prevention of workplace violence, suicide prevention, the occupational safety and health of police officers, and the scientific evaluation of workplace policies and programs.

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