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COVID was again the leading cause of death among U.S. law enforcement in 2021

A preliminary report says 458 U.S. law enforcement officers died in 2021, citing COVID-19 as the leading cause of death for the second consecutive year.
Scott Olson
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A preliminary report says 458 U.S. law enforcement officers died in 2021, citing COVID-19 as the leading cause of death for the second consecutive year.

Last year was the deadliest for active-duty law enforcement in nearly a century, with COVID-19 identified as the leading cause of death for the second year in a row.

Some 458 local, state, tribal and federal officers died in the line of duty in 2021, according to a preliminary report from the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum (NLEOMF). That makes an increase of 55% from the previous year's tally of 295 and the highest total number since 1930.

"This year's statistics demonstrate that America's front-line law enforcement officers continue to battle the deadly effects of the Covid-19 pandemic nationwide," the report reads. "Preliminary data shows that some 301 officer fatalities have been identified as caused by Covid this year, and this number appears to increase almost daily."

COVID-19 officer deaths are up and expected to rise

COVID-19-related fatalities — there were 301 — were the leading cause of death last year, as they were in 2020 when at least 182 officers died of the virus. That's an increase of 65% in one year.

A map included in the report indicates that COVID-19-related officer deaths were identified in 32 states with the highest concentration in California and Southern states including Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

"It has been reported to NLEOMF that these officers have died due to direct exposure to the virus during the commission of their official duties," the report says.

The NLEOMF emphasizes that this number is preliminary and expects it to keep growing. That's in part because there are some cases where it's not clear whether the officer contracted the virus on the job.

The organization says its COVID-19 Task Force is working with local and federal agencies to determine whether there are other officers who died after direct exposure to people with COVID-19 while working in their official capacity. And it says that's clearly still happening.

"Law enforcement officers nationwide continue to be exposed to the Covid-19 virus in the course of their daily assignments; therefore, the number of line-of-duty deaths is sadly ever-increasing," it adds.

Law enforcement groups have pushed back against vaccine mandates

COVID-19 vaccines and boosters offer protection against severe illness and death, even from the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Yet police departments and unions in cities across the country — including New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and Phoenix — have pushed back against mandates requiring vaccines for public employees, filing lawsuits and threatening resignation.

Plus, not all states have them. In Georgia, for example, where vaccine mandates are scarce, at least 33 police officers died of the virus as of November.

Leaders of some states and localities have even used the lack of a vaccine mandateas an incentive to recruit law enforcement officers from other parts of the country.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has encouraged officers from other states to join the Tennessee Highway Patrol with a promise not to "get between you and your doctor," while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has spoken of signing legislation that would award $500 bonuses to unvaccinated officers who relocate to his state for work.

Firearm and traffic fatalities also increased last year

Firearms were the second-largest cause of death with 61 officers killed feloniously by firearms in 2021, a 36% increase from the previous year. Nineteen of those officers were killed in "ambush attacks," which the report says is also a significant increase.

2021 also saw a dramatic increase in traffic-related fatalities with 58 officers killed as a result of incidents like vehicle collisions and motorcycle crashes — a 38% increase compared to the previous year.

"Struck-by" fatalities — many of which occurred while officers were investigating vehicle crashes or helping motorists on the side of the road — increased by 93% during that period.

Other officer deaths were attributed to beatings, Sept. 11-related illness and stabbings.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.