Police officers are often our first line of defense against unthinkable violence, paying a heavy toll for their bravery. Nearly 800 cops in the U.S. died in the line of duty between 1996 and 2010, according to a study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, with nine out of ten of these deaths resulting from gun violence. The findings are published in today's BMJ Injury Prevention.

"By analyzing the circumstances of these homicides, we can improve training and procedures to reduce risk to officers," said study author, David Swedler, a Ph.D. candidate with Bloomberg School's Department of Health Policy and Management and the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy. "We owe it to our law enforcement professionals to make their jobs as safe as possible."

Police work is assumed to be a hazarodous profession, with one of the highest homicide rates of all professions - 5.6 per 100,000 - which is only exceeded by being a taxi driver or an attendant at a gas station or liquor store.

The authors decided to conduct a nationwide survey of the circumstances of these police tragedies and turned to publicly available FBI data on law enforcement fatalities to construct this study. These annual reports include detailed narratives, which provided additional clarity on the types of weapons used in each case.

Gun violence was responsible for the overwhelming majority (93%) of the 796 officer fatalities recorded over this 14-year span, although the number of cop homicides has steadily declined since 2000.

Trends In Cop Homicides

Officers were working alone in two out of every five incidents, and police were ambushed in about half of the cases. Many of these ambushes occurred during routine 'domestic disturbance' calls. These trends highlight the importance of cooperative patrols.

"This study allowed us to get a clearer picture about these fatalities than we had based on prior studies," said co-author Dr. Keshia Pollack, an associate professor of Health Policy and Management and director of the Occupational Injury Epidemiology and Prevention Training Program at the Bloomberg School.

"Learning that officers were working alone in 43% of the fatalities, might lead to the development of policies that require multiple officers to respond to a call," Pollack continued.

Another small but significant threat came from officers having their service weapons stolen by perpetrators and used in retaliation. This occurred in 10 percent of cases.

"One option to counter this would be 'personalizing' the law enforcement officer's firearm such that only the officer (and possibly his/her partner) could fire it," wrote the authors, who cite that cops underestimate the frequency of takeways.

Small barrel weapons (pistols, revolvers, or semiautomatic handguns) were twice as likely to be used relative to longer barrel guns (AK-47s and shotguns). Assault caliber ammo (7.62x39 mm and 0.223)was used in 42 percent of incidents involving long barrel rifles.

Another trend suggests that head armor or bullet-proof helmets should be used more frequently, as 55 percent of the deaths were caused by head or neck wounds.

2001 was the worst year in terms of cop fatalities, even excluding the 72 from Sept. 11th, while 2008 and 2010 tied for having the lowest rates. California (73), Texas (69), Florida (37), and Georgia (37) recorded the most cop fatalities, while four states had 0 deaths: Iowa, Maine, Vermont, Wyoming.

Pollack recognizes that cities around the country have budget constraints and that sending in more than one officer to respond to a domestic disturbance or vehicle stop might be challenging.

"However, these data support that these types of policy and practices are worth considering," she concluded.

Source: Swedler DI, Kercher C, Simmons MM, Pollack KM. Occupational homicide of law enforcement officers in the US, 1996-2010. BMJ Injury Prevention. 2013.