First Responders

The Law Enforcement Death Count in 2020

January 12, 2021Joshua Skovlund
2020 law enforcement deaths, police deaths

Photo courtesy of @IVLoveForever on Twitter.

The year 2020 was the deadliest for law enforcement since 1974. Despite the widespread civil unrest and rising violent crime in several major cities throughout the last year, COVID-19 was the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund’s recently released annual report of fatalities among law enforcement officers

Along with other efforts to support law enforcement members and their families, the NLEOMF collects data on federal, state, military, tribal, and local law enforcement line-of-duty deaths. The organization collected information from around the country and found that 264 officers died in the line of duty from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2020. This is a 96% increase from the 135 line-of-duty law enforcement deaths in 2019. 

Of the deceased officers, 246 were male and 18 female, with the average age being 47 years old, with 17 years of service in law enforcement. Also, on average, each death left behind two children. The line-of-duty causes of death for officers in 2020 ranged from heart attacks to getting physically beaten to death.

Operation Star Struck, a US Marshals-led 90-day operation to reduce violent gang crime in and around Little Rock, Arkansas, resulted in 126 arrests, including 43 gang members. During the operation, which concluded on Oct. 1, 2020, law enforcement seized 52 firearms, 7.74 kg of narcotics — to include marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin — and more than $35,000 in currency. Photo courtesy of the US Marshals/Shane T. McCoy.

The NLEOMF only counts line-of-duty deaths, and suicide isn’t considered in its annual law enforcement fatalities report. According to Blue H.E.L.P. (honor, educate, lead, prevent), a law enforcement suicide-focused nonprofit that supports fallen officers’ surviving family members and records LEO suicide statistics, 173 law enforcement officers committed suicide in 2020. 

Based on reports from the NLEOMF and Blue H.E.L.P., 437 law enforcement officers died in 2020. Even with widespread civil unrest and calls for dismantling police departments across the country throughout 2020, thousands of officers continually returned to the streets to enforce the law and do their best to protect American citizens.

According to the report, COVID-19 was responsible for 145 line-of-duty LEO deaths, a preliminary count. The NLEOMF is still gathering data to confirm more COVID-19 related deaths and expects the number to increase by the time every case is verified.

The report specified that the NLEOMF established a task force to gather information to connect COVID-19 deaths in the line of duty and verify how the deceased officer had been exposed. 

minneapolis police
Police behind the barricades outside of the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd Precinct during the George Floyd protests in May 2020. Photo by Joshua Skovlund/Coffee or Die Magazine.

“The goal of the Task Force is to compile, acknowledge, and investigate every law enforcement fatality attributed to Covid-19 in the United States,” stated the report, “and to ensure that the officer is rightfully honored on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.”

The report cited the second-highest cause of line-of-duty deaths as being related to firearms, which took 48 law enforcement officers’ lives. This is a 6% decrease from 2019’s 51 firearm-related LEO deaths. The report breaks down the 48 deaths into various types of incidents, such as responding to “domestic disturbance calls,” “inadvertent gunfire,” or “robbery or burglary in-progress” calls. 

Traffic-related LEO deaths ticked up from 2019’s 43 to 44 in 2020. The report states that 18 officers died in multiple-vehicle automobile accidents, eight in single-vehicle accidents, three in motorcycle crashes, and 15 after being hit outside of their squad car by a passing vehicle. 

Five LEOs have died in the line of duty in 2021 so far, according to the NLEOMF. One of the most recent is US Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick, also a retired New Jersey Air National Guard airman, who died Thursday evening after succumbing to wounds he sustained while defending the Capitol during the siege the previous day. USCP Officer Howard Liebengood, who was also among the officers who responded to the rioting at the Capitol, committed suicide on Saturday, just days after the violent attack; his death is not included in the NLEOMF’s count.  

Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis that followed the death of George Floyd. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he earned his CrossFit Level 1 certificate and worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. He went on to work in paramedicine for more than five years, much of that time in the North Minneapolis area, before transitioning to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion, where he publishes poetry focused on his life experiences.

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