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FBI's LEOK studies don't explain why officers die

Finding that 10 percent of cars involved in crashes are yellow doesn’t mean that removing yellow paint will reduce crashes by 10 percent

Law Enforcement Officers Killed (LEOK) seminars are valued and in high demand. These studies are a chilling reminder of the savagery of attacks on police officers, but how helpful are they in predicting and preventing murders of police officers? As the 1992 FBI publication Killed in the Line of Duty states, “The specific factors that contribute to a particular law enforcement officer being placed in a particular situation that leads to his or her slaying remain unclear.”

With all due respect to this FBI-sponsored program, it is important to recognize some potentially false conclusions of the studies.

The Fallacy of Concurrence and Causation
There is a common error of logic that if one event happens closely followed by a second event that the second event was caused by the first. Concurrence, however, does not equal causation. Finding that 10 percent of cars involved in crashes are yellow doesn’t mean that removing yellow paint will reduce crashes by 10 percent. Although the LEOK program recognizes that fatal encounters are a milieu of circumstances, offender, and victim officer readers of the raw data of the LEOK studies are prone to this fallacy.

Predicting a deadly encounter and its outcome is much like predicting the weather — the perfect storm may somehow be related to the flutter of a moth that swirls a set of molecules into motion. The micro-data within the accounts of officer murders has yet to be fully mined to determine the literal and figurative trigger points that separate lethal from non-lethal encounters. The macro-data such as time of day, type of call, and weapon caliber may or may not indicate causation.

The Fallacy of Fatal Personality Defect
An often cited finding of the LEOK study is that victim officers are characterized as friendly, well-liked, hard working, service oriented, less likely to use force, known to have broken some officer safety and policy rules, feel they can “read” people, look for the good in others, and easy going. This set of characteristics was found in the Violent Encounters study released in 2006 as well as the 1992 study.

Trainers should be very cautious in the application of this finding. If we assume that these traits are somehow causative or contributory factors to officer deaths then to be safe an officer should be unfriendly, disliked, avoid hard work and public service, use force frequently, follow every procedure without discretion, make no assumptions about people but to assume the worst in everyone, and be constantly uptight. We simply cannot police this way.

More importantly, we cannot know from these studies if the behavior characteristics of the victim officers were at play during the violent encounters studied, nor if those same behavior characteristics were actually successful in the victim officers’ previous encounters with potentially violent offenders. Averaging characteristics of fallen officers may simply show that police officers who are killed are no different than police officers in general.

The Fallacy of the Reluctant Warrior
Commentary on slain officers’ reluctance to use force is impossible to put into the reconstructed context of the deadly encounter. The contrast between the dead officers’ actions and the “what I would have done” type of second guessing of officers reviewing the event is as like any Monday morning quarterback decision. We simply don’t know all the factors and processes in the dead officers’ minds, nor could we predict that our actions would be different than the murdered officers’ given the exact circumstances even in what we believe to be egregious disregard for basic officer safety protocols.

Another factor cited in lethality is failing to wait for back up, but almost half of the assaults on officers studied in the 2006 report occurred where more than one officer was present. It is not known to what degree back up was available in the remaining cases. A conclusion that outcomes may have been different in significant numbers of cases with additional officers on scene is not scientifically or logically supportable.

The Fallacy that Attitude Trumps Biology
An aspect of survival that is noted in the analysis of selected assaults on officers in the 1997 FBI publication In the Line of Fire is the officers’ will to live. This condition, frequently alluded to in officer survival literature, is difficult to define and is often reverently regarded as essential to surviving. This characteristic is not quantifiable and an examination of this “will to live” — whether it is by nature biological, metaphysical, or psychological — suggests that it has a mythical quality about it.

Anecdotal evidence of the value of the survival mindset is very strong, and has been acculturated in a generation of police officers. But to imply that some officers die because they lacked a will to live is not a conclusion based on defensible logic or evidence and has limited instructional value. If trainers include the survival mindset as a learning objective, the evidence for it from LEOK studies is not strong.

The Fallacy of Relying on Criminals for Truth
No claim is made by the FBI or LEOK trainers that there is a singular profile of a cop-killer. Profiles are composites - an average of characteristics that seem to appear with some frequency. Since many of the conclusions and recommendations from the LEOK studies come from interviews with caged cop killers it is legitimate to question the value of their psychopathic ramblings and life observations.

Limitations include distortions in the offender’s recall of the deadly interchange, and cognitive distortions associated with anti-social personalities. Sensory distortion in a violent incident is not limited to the victim officer; an offender is undergoing a traumatic event as well. Interviews are necessarily conducted years after the event, during which offenders may have reconstructed the entire sequence of events as well as their rationale and feelings. Only consenting inmates were interviewed, which may have created a self-selecting research sample that differs in some way from a more inclusive sample. In other words talkers may construct their view of the world and themselves differently than the non-talkers whose tales are untold. Offender self reporting of how often they practice with their firearms, for example, are highly suspect. Generalizing these murderer’s conclusions to all deadly encounters may lead to false assumptions.

Offenders interviewed apparently often mention that they “sized up” the officer and decided to resist or not based on those calculations. Commentators may be overemphasizing the role of the offender’s view of the officer as professional or unprofessional as a principle contributing factor to the felons’ decisions to attack. The fact that this element is mentioned by several offenders does not validate their comments given these killers’ skewed sense of their world. Nor does it really instruct an officer how to give off that aura of confidence and competence to a person whose values are contrary to those of law enforcement.

It is ironic that interpretation of the study affords credence to an offender who “reads” an officer, yet contends that the same characteristic in officers is faulty and may have contributed to their death.

The Fallacy of Sufficiency
The greatest weakness of LEOK studies is a lack of data — we don’t know what we don’t know. Police officers engage in hundreds of thousands of contacts every day. Compliant police encounters offer up no data. We do not systematically study successful outcomes, only the deadly ones. A recent survey indicates that 60 to 80 percent of officers will make a deadly force decision in their career. Most of those officers are able to choose not to use deadly force, yet we study only those who pull the trigger. As acknowledged in ‘In the Line of Fire,’ we don’t fully know why similar situations vary in their outcomes.

In Conclusion...
The FBI and other scholarly studies on officer deaths and assaults are laudable and must continue. None of these studies claim that to be a predictor of future events or prescribe specific responses to an extremely dynamic violent event; therefore their use in formulating training is limited. The flagship 1992 report is based on incidents chosen for study that occurred between 1975 and 1985, before many of our current officers were born. Much about technology, society, and the police profession has changed since those events took place. At present, the primary value of these studies is their dramatic reminder that murderous assaults can occur anytime, anywhere.

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