COVID-19’s impact on law enforcement officer deaths in 2021

Police car

Law enforcement officers (LEOs) in the U.S. have one of the most challenging jobs. They are trained to respond to scenarios including violent crime, active shooters, medical emergencies and more. Few, however, were trained or prepared to face an invisible enemy like COVID-19.

I met my mentor Dominique Wong, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at Cabell Huntington Hospital, at a lecture near the end of 2020. She introduced me to the field of tactical medicine and mentioned the impact COVID-19 was having on LEOs. I couldn’t believe more people weren’t talking about this. So, with her help, I started collecting and analyzing data for line of duty deaths (LODDs) in 2021.

In the United States, from 2010 to 2019, an average of 165 officers were killed annually. At the start of the pandemic in 2020, the number of LODDs jumped to 398. In 2021, the number increased again to 640 LODDs, which is a 74% increase from last decade’s baseline. COVID-19 was identified as the cause of the majority (71.5% or 458) of LEO deaths in 2021. The second most common cause was gunfire at 64 deaths, which sadly, is not out of the range of normal.

What if COVID never happened? In 2021, the non-COVID LEO deaths totaled 182, which is not far from that previously mentioned 165 death/year decade average. During spring and summer 2021, I was hopeful as LEO deaths from COVID decreased significantly to 22 in July. Unfortunately, as the Delta variant swept the nation, we saw a record number of LEO deaths from COVID, reaching 105 in August and then 117 in September.

Ages ranged from 21 to 79 with the most affected groups of LEOs in their 50s and 40s, respectively. Most of the individuals in these age ranges are department leaders with years of experience.

Excess deaths are defined as the difference between the observed number of deaths in a time period and the expected number of deaths in the same time period. Percent excess deaths as calculated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were dramatically larger among law enforcement officers than the U.S. general population. Again, this is largely due to the impact of COVID-19 deaths.

LEOs in three geographical areas were hit hardest by COVID in 2021. Texas had 118 LEO deaths. Florida and Georgia came in second and third, respectively, with a little more than 50 deaths each. The overwhelming majority of those deaths were due to COVID.

To conclude, my data unequivocally shows that LEO deaths followed the same trends that were seen in the general population. As general population deaths from COVID increased or decreased, LEO COVID deaths followed. Excess deaths from COVID, however, were proportionally much higher in law enforcement than the general population. The largest risk factor in dying from COVID as a LEO was age, which led to significant loss of law enforcement leadership and experience.

Additional analysis and planning are needed to inform law enforcement policy, training and communication for future epidemics or pandemics. I’ve had the privilege of sharing these findings with the American College of Emergency Physicians and International Association of Chiefs of Police at their annual conferences in 2022. I hope that my research highlights the ultimate sacrifice many brave men and women have made and is utilized to help prevent another massive loss of LEOs.

This article appeared in the March 26, 2023, edition of the Herald Dispatch.


Willie Kimler

Willie Kimler is a third-year medical student at the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine from Logan County, West Virginia.