The number of ambush-style killings of police officers in the U.S. reached a two-decade high this year, pushing law enforcement fatalities to their highest tally in five years, with 135 officers killed in the line of duty, according to a year-end report by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Shootings were the No. 1 cause of death for law enforcement in 2016, claiming the lives of 64 officers — including eight gunned down in two ambush attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in July. The report notes 21 of the officers were shot and killed in ambush-style attacks.
Firearms-related deaths were up 56 percent over the 41 officers killed by gunfire in 2015, but are still far below the all-time high of 156 officers killed by gunfire in 1973.
Since hitting a peak of 280 total line-of-duty deaths in the early 1970s, law enforcement fatalities have been on a general decline. But the total number of officers killed this year is the highest since 2011, when 177 officers died in the line of duty, according to the report published Thursday.
“Public safety is a partnership and, too often, the service and sacrifice of our law enforcement professionals is taken for granted,” said memorial fund President Craig W. Floyd. “As we begin the new year, let us all resolve to respect, honor and remember those who have served us so well and sacrificed so much in the name of public safety.”
Recent high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police officers have raised tensions between police and the communities they serve — with citizens launching protests aimed at preventing harassment and brutality by officers. But those who wear the badge came squarely under attack this year with several direct attacks.
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In Dallas 25-year-old Army veteran Micah Xavier Johnson opened fire on police officers on July 7 as hundreds gathered to protest fatal police-involved shootings in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and St. Paul, Minnesota. Five officers — Michael Smith, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa — were killed, and nine officers and two civilians were injured in the attack. Before he was killed by police, Johnson told negotiators that he sought to kill white officers.
Less than two weeks later, law enforcement officers were in mourning again — this time after gunman Gavin Long fatally shot three officers in Baton Rouge. Authorities said the gunman, who identified himself as a member of a largely black separatist sovereign nation, displayed a high degree of technical skill as he stalked and fired upon Officers Montrell Jackson and Matthew Gerald and Deputy Brad Garafola.
The shootings highlighted the growing concern among officers across the country that anti-police rhetoric espoused by some involved in the Black Lives Matter movement was having deadly consequences.
As a result, police officers from agencies across the country partnered up on patrols, and some departments took a hard-line approach to any perceived threats. In Detroit police arrested four men for posting on social media messages they believed were direct threats against officers. Ultimately, the local prosecutor declined to bring charges in the case, deeming the messages too vague to be a specific threat.
Police groups have described improving relationships between police and residents, and restoring respect for law enforcement as one of their top priorities in the coming year under the new leadership of President-elect Donald Trump.
“Together we must reshape the conversation to one which is supportive of law enforcement officers,” National Sheriff’s Association President Greg Champagne said in an interview last month. “We must work to reverse the hostility by some toward law enforcement officers that has been allowed to creep in over the last couple of years.”
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While shootings were the main cause of death for officers this year, more law enforcement officers also died this year than in 2015 traffic-related incidents.
Fifty-three officers were killed in traffic-related incidents this year, compared to 48 in 2015. According to the report, 15 of the deaths occurred when officers were struck while outside of their vehicles. Ten of the officers who died were involved in motorcycle crashes.
The remaining 18 officers died from a variety of causes, including several who suffered heart attacks while on the job. Two officers who died in 2016 had contracted illnesses as a result of rescue-and-recovery work related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.