Intentional killings of police officers in 2021 reached a 20-year high — the most since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
According to FBI data shared with CNN, 73 officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty last year. Excluding the deaths that resulted from 9/11, that’s the highest number since 1995. The FBI classifies “felonious killings” as when an officer is “fatally injured as a direct result of a willful and intentional act by an offender.”
The numbers represent a 59% increase in felonious officer deaths from 2020, which saw 46 officer killings.
To explain the increase, officials point to the backdrop of increasing homicides and gun violence throughout the country. The FBI reported that the majority of felonious officer killings were due to gunfire, with 55 officers being fatally shot.
Total national homicide numbers sharply spiked in 2020 following the death of George Floyd and the start of the pandemic, and they continued to rise in 2021. In fact, 10 cities recorded historic all-time highs for homicide numbers last year, according to police department data.
Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), said that more officers have unfortunately been caught in the crossfire of the increasing homicides and shootings.
“When homicides go up, more shootings go up, and it contributes to an overall increase in violence and police officers find themselves in the middle of that environment,” Wexler said.
Maria Haberfeld, chair of the Department of Law, Police Sciences, and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College, analyzed the data on police officer killings and found that there was an association between police officer deaths and high-profile incidents of officer misconduct.
She said a case like George Floyd, which involved a few individual officers, could “spill over to all the other police officers around the country.”
While the CNN article noted that most officer deaths last year were due to COVID-19, the rise in unprovoked attacks on police officers was troubling.
Last month, police officers in Bradley, Illinois, were shot while responding to a call about dogs barking in a parking lot. Sergeant Marlene Rittmanic was killed and her partner, Officer Tyler Bailey, was hospitalized in critical condition.
In the same month, Baltimore Officer Keona Holley was shot and killed while sitting in her patrol car. Baltimore Police Commissioner said two suspects were arrested and charged with attempted murder after they confessed to the crime, but the motivations were not clear.
Cases like these represent “unprovoked attacks,” which are usually in the single digits each year, according to the FBI. In 2020, just two officers were killed in an unprovoked attack, while there were 25 unprovoked killings in 2021.
Unlike an ambush, which is a premeditated attack, the FBI describes unprovoked attacks as random and not related to any incident or prior contact.
Haberfeld pointed to a 2020 Gallup report that found record-low confidence in U.S. police and said the anti-police climate could be a contributing factor to the increase in violence.
“There is an overall climate now that is very anti-police, which adds a different angle to what used to happen periodically to police in the past years,” she said in an interview with CNN. “The anti-police climate would surge after a high-profile case, and usually after a month or so it would subside. But right now, we’re talking about over a year of high-profile, anti-police coverage.”