North Carolina State Highway Patrol Master Trooper James “Brent” Montgomery is laid to rest last week after passing away from COVID-19 on March 15. Photo courtesy North Carolina State Highway Patrol.
COVID-19 hit Detroit first. Hard. Starting March 24, 2020 – one year ago today – officials in the city reported in quick succession the deaths of three law enforcement workers. All died from COVID-19, the first three officially acknowledged fatal cases among police anywhere in the country.
A year after those first deaths, COVID-19 has been, by far, the leading cause of death among the police, sheriffs, detention officers, and state and federal agents who enforce the nation’s laws.
Several independent organizations that count law enforcement deaths from COVID-19 across the country put the number of police who have died from the virus close to 300, far above all other causes.
By comparison, just more than 300 officers died in car crashes — the next leading cause of death — in the entire decade of the 2010s.
It began a year ago today in Detroit. Two police employees in unassociated positions, officials announced, had died within 24 hours. The two were soon identified as a civilian radio dispatcher and one of the department’s most visible leaders, Capt. Jonathan Parnell, the commanding officer of the Detroit Police Homicide Section. Known as “Recon” to his officers, Parnell was so beloved that when he was promoted to run the homicide department, the officers he was leaving behind in the auto theft division asked Detroit’s police chief to not let him go (the boss declined, moving Parnell up).
A day after those first two deaths, on March 25, officials announced the virus-related death of a commander with the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department, Donafay Collins, 63. Collins was in charge of a Detroit jail.
The disparity between the positions was stark: a radio dispatcher, a homicide captain, and a detention official. Despite working in completely different corners of the city’s law enforcement, the virus had found all three.
Reports of the virus quickly spread. By the end of March, officers had died in Louisiana, North Carolina, and California.
By the end of 2020, deaths attributable to COVID-19 had essentially doubled the number of cops killed on duty from the 2019 figure. In that last pre-pandemic year, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum, 135 federal, state, military, tribal, and local law enforcement officers died in the line of duty — the highest of the previous decade was 185 in 2017. For 2020, that number rocketed to 264, of which the huge majority were COVID-19-related.
Now a full year after the first COVID-19 losses, another organization that keeps an unofficial tally of national law enforcement deaths, the Officer Down Memorial Page, puts the number of COVID-19 deaths at 275. The NLEMM, which asks departments to submit paperwork to confirm causes of death, puts the number slightly lower, at 254, according to its website.
Still another independent counting project by Police1, which tracks media reports, cites 195 confirmed LEO deaths to the pandemic.
All three say their counts are of cases in which the officer caught the disease on duty. But outside of tracking logs, the real toll is almost certainly higher.
None of the three yet list two officers who their departments say died of the disease in the latter half of March. The North Carolina State Highway Patrol announced on March 15 that Master Trooper James “Brent” Montgomery had died from the virus. And earlier this week, officials announced that another Michigan officer, Clinton Township Police Chief Fred Posavetz, had passed away at 64. Posavetz was a 40-year-veteran of the police department in Clinton, a town about 30 minutes outside Ann Arbor.
Matt White is a former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine. He was a pararescueman in the Air Force and the Alaska Air National Guard for eight years and has more than a decade of experience in daily and magazine journalism.
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