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Gun victimization in the line of duty

Article  in  Criminology & Public Policy · July 2020

DOI: 10.1111/1745-9133.12507




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Michael Sierra-Arévalo

University of Texas at Austin



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DOI: 10.1111/1745-9133.12507



Gun victimization in the line of duty
Fatal and nonfatal firearm assaults on police officers in the United
States, 2014–2019

Michael Sierra-Arévalo1 Justin Nix2

1 University of Texas at Austin
2 University of Nebraska Omaha


[email protected]

Research Summary: Using open-source data from the
Gun Violence Archive (GVA), we analyze national- and
state-level trends in fatal and nonfatal firearm assaults
of U.S. police officers from 2014 to 2019 (N = 1,467).
Results show that (a) most firearm assaults are nonfatal,
(b) thereis nocompelling evidencethat thenational rate
of firearm assault on police has substantially increased
during the last 6 years, and (c) there is substantial
state-level variation in rates of firearm assault on police
Policy Implications: GVA has decided strengths rela-
tive to existing data sources on police victimization and
danger in policing. We consider the promises and pit-
falls of this and other open-source data sets in polic-
ing research and recommend that recent state-level
improvements in use-of-force data collection be repli-
cated and expanded to include data on violence against

danger, firearm assault, gun violence, policing

After more than 50 years of social science research on policing in the United States, the dan-
ger of police work remains a salient feature of police officers’ occupational environment (Lof-
tus, 2010; Marenin, 2016; Sierra-Arévalo, 2019). Scholarly attention to the danger of policing has
been renewed by recent discussion of a “war on cops” that began after the 2014 police killing
of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Proponents of this hypothesized war posit that the
contemporary political climate has resulted in widespread distrust and even disdain of police

Criminology & Public Policy. 2020;1–26. © 2020 American Society of Criminology


on the part of public officials, academics, and the news media; in turn, the public has become
increasingly “anti-police” and emboldened to question, resist, and violently attack police offi-
cers on U.S. streets (Mac Donald, 2016). Despite widespread concern among police administra-
tors (Nix, Wolfe, & Campbell, 2018), however, empirical research on the most dire implication
of a war on cops—violence against police—finds no significant increases in fatal or nonfatal
violence against police in recent years (Maguire, Nix, & Campbell, 2017; Shjarback & Maguire,
2019). Nonetheless, the issue of violence against police remains highly salient to U.S. politics and
policy, including the rise of the Blue Lives Matter movement and the growth in laws seeking
enhanced penalties for killing police officers (Craven, 2017).


Despite the rich history of research on danger in police work, there are several long-standing
limitations to this body of scholarship. First, researchers’ operationalization of “danger” tends
toward the rarest, most extreme measure of danger in police work: felonious line-of-duty deaths
that are driven by firearm assaults (see White, Dario, & Shjarback, 2019, p. 14). This focus on felo-
nious deaths underestimates the total scope of the danger police confront by ignoring nonfatal
violence against officers (cf. Bierie, 2017; Bierie, Detar, & Craun, 2016), including nonfatal firearm
assaults that,eventhoughtheydonotresult inaline-of-dutydeath,representcasesofdeadlyforce
directed at police. Second, analyses that attend to all assaults on police officers better capture less-
than-lethal violence (e.g., punches and kicks) but do not differentiate such cases from especially
lethal threats like firearmassaults (Shjarback& Maguire, 2019; Tiesman, Gwilliam, Konda, Rojek,
& Marsh, 2018; cf. Bierie et al., 2016). Third, data sources that rely on voluntary reporting by police
(e.g., LEOKA and NIBRS) are limited by a lack of consistent reporting by law enforcement agen-
cies and marked lag times in the release of said data, frustrating timely, confident estimates of a
Pinchevsky, & Wright, 2019, p. 6; Shjarback & Maguire, 2019).
Because of its inattention to cases in which officers are shot but not killed, existing research

tends to provide either an underestimate of gun violence directed at officers or eschew specificity
in favor of an estimate of assault broadly defined. This, in combination with the data quality and
timeliness issues that affect data sets commonly used to examine violence against police, pre-
vents accurate estimates of total firearm assaults on officers that are of long-standing salience to
the issue of officer safety in the United States (Cell, 2019; The President’s Commission on Law
Enforcement and Administration of Justice, 1967, p. 239).

Given the decided gravity of the prob-

lem at hand, there is a clear and urgent need for researchers to bring new, more timely data to

(GVA), a nonprofit organization that collects and constantly updates data on firearm assaults of
police officers across the United States. Because GVA records both fatal and nonfatal firearm
assaults on police, we are able to provide an estimate of firearm assaults on police officers that
includes (and differentiates) fatal and nonfatal shootings.

We use these data to provide national-

and state-level estimates of fatal and nonfatal firearm assaults against police officers in the United
States from 2014 to 2019. We conclude with consideration of future directions for this research as
well as the promises and limitations of data like those collected by GVA in research on violence
against and by police. We also provide concrete policy recommendations for improving the qual-
ity and timeliness of data on violence against police to better support police agencies, researchers,
and policy makers.



Social science research on the danger of police work in the United States can trace its roots back
more than half a century to foundational ethnographic studies of life on patrol. Early single-site
studies (Westley, 1953, 1970) and comparative studies (Banton, 1964) noted officers’ tangible pre-
occupation with danger and violence in the line of duty. Decades of subsequent scholarship have
confirmed the enduring importance placed by officers, supervisors, and the police organization
on the reality of violence in policing (Brown, 1988; Moskos, 2009; Sierra-Arévalo, 2016; Skolnick,
1966), especially when that violence proves deadly (Manning, 1977, pp. 7–8; Sierra-Arévalo, 2019).
Such qualitative research began to be complemented by quantitative analyses of line-of-duty

danger beginning in the 1970s. In 1971, a group of law enforcement executives—in response to
sharp increases in felonious officer deaths throughout the 1960s—called for an expansion of the
in 1972, the FBI began collecting more detailed information on both officers killed and officers
assaulted in the line of duty, eventually combining these data in 1982 into what is now commonly
known as LEOKA, or Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (FBI, 2019a). Researchers
quickly took advantage of this new data source to quantitatively assess the landscape of violence
against police.
The earliest analyses of LEOKA data concentrated on felonious officer deaths, specifically in

cities, and uncovered a positive relationship with structural factors such as the percentage of the
city population that is Black, city crime rate, and the proportion of a city living in poverty (Lester,
1977, 1984). Later city-level analyses examined the relationship between political, city-level factors
like Black representation in city council and Black mayorship on felonious police deaths (Jacobs
& Carmichael, 2002; Kaminski & Stucky, 2009; Kent, 2010). LEOKA has also been used to exam-
ine felonious officer deaths at the national (Swedler, Simmons, Dominici, & Hemenway, 2015),
regional (Fridell & Pate, 1995), and county level (Kaminski, 2008). Finally, other scholars have
moved beyond LEOKA and turned to the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS;
Blair,Fowler,Betz,&Baumgardner,2016), theNationalIncidentBasedReportingSystem(NIBRS;
Bierie, 2017; Bierie et al., 2016; Willits, 2014), or data collected by nonprofit organizations like the
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) or the Officer Down Memorial
Page (Kaminski & Marvell, 2002; Maguire et al., 2017; White et al., 2019) to explore patterns in
felonious police deaths.
Scholars have noted for some time, however, that analyses focused on felonious line-of-duty

deaths systematically underestimate the full scope of danger that officers face by excluding non-
ically (Shjarback & Maguire, 2019; Tiesman et al., 2018), both fatal and nonfatal assaults (Crifasi,
Pollack, & Webster, 2016; Fridell, Faggiani, Taylor, Brito, & Kubu, 2009), or some combination of
fatalassaults, nonfatalassaults, andline-of-dutyaccidents(Brandl,1996; White etal., 2019).These
related streams of research provide invaluable insight but, of course, also come with important
With regard to studies that focus on nonfatal assaults or which examine both fatal and nonfatal

assaults, theclearestbenefitofsuchresearchis itsabilitytodescribethemostcommontypeofvio-
lencedirectedatpolice.EstimatesfromthemostrecentlyavailableLEOKAstatistics illustratethis
point: In comparison with the 55 officers feloniously killed in 2018 (51 by firearm), nearly 59,000
were nonfatally assaulted (2,116 by firearm; FBI, 2019b). This practical benefit notwithstanding,
special attention to nonfatal assaults often obfuscates the particular phenomenon of assaults that,
even if nonfatal, constitute a use of deadly force against police.


For example, Shjarback and Maguire’s (2019) time-series analysis of LEOKA data to investigate
trends in violence directed at police, although able to provide cautious estimates of national-level
trends in nonfatal assaults, did not analytically distinguish an injury caused by a fist or a bullet.
Tiesman et al. (2018)) analysis of injurious assaults treated in U.S. emergency rooms and analyses
employing NIBRS data had the same limitation (Bierie, 2017; Willits, 2014).


Several studies did disaggregate fatal and nonfatal firearm assaults on police across the United
States. Bierie and colleagues’ (2016) analysis of gun violence against police included both fatal
and nonfatal firearm assault estimates drawn from NIBRS, improving on past research that either
focused on fatal assaults alone or conflated firearm assault with assault more generally. Although
NIBRS collects data from multiple states and thousands of law enforcement agencies, it is affected
bydataissuesnotunlikethosethataffectLEOKA(Kuhnsetal.,2016,p.6). In2010,themostrecent
year of NIBRS available to Bierie et al. (2016), approximately 5,400 agencies from 37 states were
represented in NIBRS, capturing only 37% of agencies and oversampling on small- and medium-
sized agencies (2016, p. 506). In the same vein, even though Crifasi et al. (2016) differentiated
fatal from nonfatal firearm assaults in their study of assault lethality, their reliance on LEOKA
data raises concerns about the reliability of their firearm assault estimates similar to other studies
employing this data set.
Besides the lack of representativeness that characterizes LEOKA and NIBRS data, the issue

of significant lag times in the release of these data creates marked challenges in providing timely,
the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) and the Officer Down Memo-
rial Page (ODMP) have provided practically real-time data on officers accidentally and feloniously
killed in the line of duty, they have not recorded information on nonfatal assaults. As a result,
researchers interested in nonfatal assaults are mainly restricted to data that are anywhere from 18
to 24 months old (Kuhns et al., 2016, p. 6).

This is, of course, neither the fault of researchers nor,

to our knowledge, the result of willful tardiness on the part of government—collecting and clean-
ing data from thousands of independent law enforcement agencies is a monumental undertaking.
Nonetheless, the persistent limitations of existing data create clear need for new, national-level
data sources that can enable more timely investigation of firearm violence against police and sup-
port the decision-making of law enforcement agencies and policy makers.


2.1 Data source

This analysis uses data collected by the Gun Violence Archive (GVA), an independent, nonprofit
organization whose mission is to “provide free online public access to accurate information about
gun-related violence in the United States” (GVA, 2020a, para. 2). The GVA’s definition of gun-
related violence is expansive and tracks firearm homicides, suicides, and injuries, as well as acci-
gatherthisdata,GVAresearchersmonitorapproximately7,500newsmedia, lawenforcement,and
governmental sources from across the United States for cases of firearm violence. Additionally,
GVA researchers manually sweep social media accounts (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) and web-
sites to gather relevant cases. For each incident, GVA records date, geocoded location, city/county,
state, available victim- and perpetrator-level information (e.g., name, age, and sex), incident type


(e.g., “Shot – Wounded/Injured” and “Shot – Dead”), and URL links to online sources that docu-
ment each incident (GVA, 2020b).
In addition to data on officer-involved shootings of the public tracked by other open-source


includes and differentiates fatal and nonfatal firearm assaults, allowing for more complete and
fine-grained estimation of the firearm violence that results in the death and nonfatal injury of
police officers.

2.2 Case selection and analytic strategy

All cases in the GVA’s larger data set in which law enforcement officers were shot (fatally and
nonfatally) were provided by GVA for the period between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2019.


We restrict our analytic sample in several ways.
First, we include active, sworn local and state law enforcement officers who are members of

agencies that respond to calls for service; this sample is composed of officers employed by local
departments at the city or county level, sheriff’s departments, and state police agencies. Addition-
ally, our sample includes special jurisdiction officers such as transit or university police, tribal
police, and specialized state agencies like wildlife or park police whose patrol and enforcement
activities are reasonably similar to local and state departments. We exclude federal law enforce-
ment officers, parole and probation agents, and court officers who, although sworn, do not engage
in routine investigatory, patrol, or enforcement activity.
Second, our analytic sample is restricted to cases involving (a) on-duty officers, (b) whose per-

son or equipment (excluding vehicles) was shot,
(c) with a firearm, (d) by someone who is not a

police officer (including while struggling with a suspect over a firearm).
These criteria exclude

off-dutyfirearminjuries; injuriescausedbymeansotherthanapistol,rifle,orshotgun(e.g.,shrap-
nel from an explosion, pellet gun); self-inflicted firearm injuries whether accidental (e.g., training
accident) or intentional (e.g., suicides or suicide attempts); and “blue on blue” shootings in which
one officer accidentally shot another officer.

Additionally, these criteria exclude cases in which

a suspect fired at but did not strike an officer, as well as those in which a suspect pointed a firearm
at an officer but did not fire.
To select this sample from the raw data provided by GVA, the authors (and a research assistant

directly supervised by the first author) independently checked each case (N = 1,962). The case-by-
case check was accomplished by following the online sources recorded by GVA for every individ-
ual listedinthedataset.BecauseURLsforonlinemediareportsweresometimesinactive,Internet
searches using the incident date, incident location, and available officer names were used to find
other sources to verify the incident. In the interest of providing a conservative estimate of nonfatal
firearm injury, cases for which media sources listed an officer as “wounded,” “injured,” or “hurt”
but did not specifically stipulate a gunshot injury from a bullet, shot (e.g., shotgun ammunition),
bullet fragments, or shrapnel were excluded. Similarly, cases in which it was unclear whether an
officer shot themselves, was shot by a suspect, or was shot by another officer were excluded to
err toward a conservative estimate. Cases that coders were uncertain how to code were flagged
and reviewed by the authors to arrive at a final coding decision. Our inclusion criteria and coding
process produced an analytic sample of 1,467 cases for our descriptive analysis of fatal and non-
fatal firearm assaults on police officers to provide estimates at the national and state level (see
Table 1).



TABLE 1 Officers fatally and nonfatally shot by a suspect, 2014–2019

Nonfatal Fatal Total
Year N % N % N %
2014 152 80.4 37 19.6 189 100.0
2015 202 86.3 32 13.7 234 100.0
2016 229 79.5 59 20.5 288 100.0
2017 211 85.1 37 14.9 248 100.0
2018 195 81.3 45 18.8 240 100.0
2019 229 85.5 39 14.6 268 100.0
Total 1,218 83.0 249 17.0 1,467 100.0

Note: Some rows may not sum to 100% due to rounding.

To calculate national rates of firearm assault per 100,000 officers (or at the state level, per
1,000 officers), we use estimates of the number of sworn local and state officers from the FBI’s
Police Employee data (PE), which document the number of sworn officers at the agency level.


As mentioned in our discussion of past work, PE data (and the FBI’S UCR data more broadly)
have well-documented issues with incomplete reporting/missing data (King, Cihan, & Heinonen,
2011; Lynch & Jarvis, 2008). We also note that 2019 PE data are currently unavailable at the
time of this article’s writing, further underscoring our critique of the lag time in the release of
governmentally produced policing data. To address these two issues, we follow the suggestions
of past research (King et al., 2011, p. 450; Stucky, 2005) and use multiple years of PE data to
impute missing estimates of sworn state and local officers. Specifically, we calculate a quadratic
regression function for each state’s officer population for 2013–2018, then use the regression coef-
ficients for year and year2 to estimate missing state-years. We use this approach to impute a
total of 53 values, 51 of which are 2019 imputations (50 states plus Washington, D.C.) and two
of which correspond to a single year of missing data for Alaska in 2015 and West Virginia in


Despite our use of multiple years of data to impute 2019 values for each state and mitigate
the unreliability of any single-year estimate, some states in the PE data show reporting problems
across several years. According to FBI UCR records (FBI, 2019c), three states—Mississippi, Indi-
ana, and West Virginia—had less than 75% of agencies in metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs),
cities outside MSAs, or nonmetropolitan counties report data to the FBI for every year between
2013 and 2018.

We denote these three states in all our analyses of state-level trends in firearm

assault on police officers with “*” and discuss the broader implications of such data quality issues
in our Discussion.


From 2014 to 2019, 249 police officers were fatally shot by suspects and 1,218 were struck or non-
fatally wounded by suspect gunfire (see Table 1). The total number of firearm assaults during this
period has shifted between a low of 189 in 2014 to a high of 288 in 2016. During the full 6-year
period, an average of 245 officers a year were shot by suspects in the line of duty. Of those shot,
an average of 42 per year (17%) were killed; only 14% to 21% of firearm assaults on officers each
year result in fatalities, underscoring the importance of collecting and analyzing data on nonfatal
firearm assaults alongside those on fatal firearm assaults.



FIGURE 1 Monthly firearm assaults on U.S. police, 2014–2019 [Color figure can be viewed at wileyonlineli-]

Figure 1 presents monthly frequencies of fatal and nonfatal firearm assault on officers from
2014 to 2019. On average, 20 officers were assaulted with firearms each month. The number of
monthly firearm assaults ranged from a low of 10 in February 2014 to a high of 46 in February
2016. Interestingly, there is no clear evidence of seasonality in firearm assaults on officers overall
or when looking at nonfatal firearm assault, running counter to seasonal patterns found by some
research for violence and crime more generally (McDowall & Curtis, 2015; McDowall, Loftin, &
Pate, 2012). Turning to longitudinal trends, although the trend in the monthly frequency of fatal
firearm assaults on officers is flat from 2014 to 2019, there does appear to be a slight, upward trend
in the monthly frequency of firearm assaults on officers, overall. This overall trend is driven by
the parallel trendline in monthly nonfatal firearm assaults. Without accurate estimates of the
population of officers in the United States per month, however, it is not possible to calculate
a monthly rate. Though, to our knowledge, no such monthly estimates exist, we can aggregate
monthly counts of firearm assaults into yearly counts and use yearly estimates of the population
of U.S. police officers to calculate annual rates.
Figure 2 does exactly this and plots the national rate of firearm assault on police officers (per

100,000 officers) from 2014 to 2019 and disaggregates this overall rate into separate trend lines
for fatal and nonfatal firearm assaults. Across the time series, the national rate of firearm assault
on police was lowest in 2014 (29.92 per 100,000 officers) and highest in 2016 (44.11 per 100,000
officers). Overall, the national rate shows a slight upward trend between 2014 and 2019 (B = .750).
Turning to the disaggregated trendlines for fatal and nonfatal firearm assaults, two notable pat-

do not consistently track one another over time. The rates of fatal and nonfatal firearm assault
diverge from 2014 to 2015, move in parallel between 2015 and 2017, and diverge again from 2018
to 2019. Note also that 2017 to 2018 is the only period in which the rate of nonfatal firearm assault
on officers decreases while the rate of fatal assault increases. Overall, these longitudinal patterns
reinforce that trends in the national rate of firearm assault on police are mainly driven by changes
in the rate of nonfatal firearm assault.


FIGURE 2 National rate of firearm assault on police, 2014–2019 [Color figure can be viewed at wileyonlineli-]

Similar to the frequency trends shown in Figure 1, the trend in the national fatal firearm assault
rate is flat from 2014 to 2019 (B = –.025), whereas the fitted linear trends for total firearm assaults
and nonfatal firearm assaults shows a slight increase (B = .750, .772). Of course, sober interpre-
tation of this increase is merited given that the slope of both of these trend lines is minimal and
represents a small yearly increase in the number of officers nonfatally assaulted with firearms.
To illustrate this, let us assume a static number of officers drawn from 2018 UCR estimates of the
number of full-time, sworn police officers in the United States: 686,665 (FBI, 2019c). Using this
as a population baseline, we then look to the slope of the fitted nonfatal firearm assault trend
knowing that trends in total firearm assault are driven by changes in nonfatal assault. The slope
of the fitted trend for the rate of nonfatal firearm assault suggests that, on average, an additional
5.3 officers were victims of nonfatal firearm assault every year between 2014 and 2019.
Although it is certainly informative to study national trends, such analyses are likely to be

affected by aggregation bias wherein heterogeneity across smaller ecological units is masked
(Kaminski, 2008; Kaminski & Marvell, 2002; Kent, 2010; Peterson & Bailey, 1988). That is, by
combining data from across the U.S. to produce national-level estimates, we risk losing sight of
important variation at smaller units of analysis. To address this, we first provide a state-level view
of the frequency of firearm assaults on police for 2014 to 2019 (see Figure 3). During this 6-year
period, states experienced an average of 28.77 firearm assaults or 4.80 firearm assaults per year.
Texas (n = 143) and California (n = 112) had the highest number of firearm assault incidents over
this period, averaging 23.83 and 18.67 firearm assaults per year, respectively. In contrast, GVA data
indicate Delaware and Montana each experienced only two firearm assaults on officers over this
Next, we calculate 6-year average firearm assault rates for each state to account for variation

in state-level officer populations (see Figure 4). Our results show substantial variation across the
United States. Officers in Mississippi, New Mexico, and Alaska experienced the greatest risk …