2021 Law Enforcement Officer, Line of Duty Deaths – the Impact of COVID-19
Willie Kimler MD Candidate (2024)
Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine
Dominique Wong MD
U.S. law enforcement is a dangerous job. Unexpectedly, an infectious disease, COVID-19 is the newest threat to officers. Data from 2020 and 2021 show a marked increase in LODDs because of COVID-19. 398 officers died in the line of duty in 2020. There were 512 LODD in 2021 (As of January 21, 2022). To put this in perspective, for the decade 2010-2019, preceding COVID-19, there was an average of 165 LODD per year. (Figure 1.)
One death of a law enforcement officer (LEO) that spends his or her life protecting citizens is too many.
COVID-19 comprised the overwhelming majority of LEO deaths in 2020 and 2021. Indeed, COVID-19 killed more officers than all other line of duty deaths combined in both of those years. Death from gunfire, typically one of the leading causes of death prior to COVID, was a distant second in both 2020 and 2021. (Figure 2)
Like health care workers, law enforcement officers work with the public. LEO COVID-19 occupational exposures occurred from contact with the public, inmates, through fellow officers and via department spread.
COVID-19 case trends in law enforcement tended to mirror trends in the general public.
COVID-19 officer deaths declined from January to July as did the deaths in the public. Subsequently, July through September data show a notable spike in deaths as the Delta variant of COVID also swept the nation. (Figure 3)
Age is a risk factor for severe infection or death from COVID-19. Officers in their 50s comprised the largest number of absolute COVID-19 deaths in 2021. However, when taken as a percentage of total officers per decade of life, the increased rate of death in law enforcement was directly related to officer age as in the general population. (Figure 4). Compared to the officer fatality rate for 19-29 yo, officers in their 30s were 4x more likely to die from COVID. Officers in their 40s were 10x more likely to die from covid and the death rate for officers continues to climb to officers > 70 yo who were 35x more likely than officers in their 20s to die from COVID. Along with loss of a loved one for families, much law enforcement experience and leadership was lost to this disease.
COVID-19 deaths impacted some agencies more than others. Many agencies lost more than one officer. Austin Police Department and Dallas Police Department each lost four officers in 2021, with three of these deaths in each department due to COVID-19. When Corrections is included, Texas Department of Criminal Justice had 26 officer deaths. All 26 deaths were due to COVID-19. The federal law enforcement agency, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) accounted for 30 of the LODD COVID-19 deaths in 2021, (almost 8% of LODD COVID deaths and 5% of all LODDs).
Deaths from the virus among LEOs were variably distributed around the country. Texas, Florida, and Georgia accounted for 34% of all COVID-19 LODD deaths (yet these three states make up only 18% of the total US population.) Texas had the most absolute number of COVID-19 deaths at 89 with a substantial number of these in corrections.
With Delta variant in decline, LODDs from COVID-19 have also declined. However, LEOs are now faced with a new variant, Omicron, heading into 2022. With early data suggesting Omicron’s lower mortality rate, one can hope that LODDs will decline as we continue to battle this pandemic.
As law enforcement medical providers, we must work to reduce the number of law enforcement officer deaths from all causes. Infectious disease concerns are likely to remain significant homeland security threats. Lessons learned from this pandemic will serve us and our law enforcement partners in the future.