Keeping Law Enforcement Officers Alive
Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory: 2021 was the most dangerous year to be a law enforcement officer in about two decades.
According to data provided to the FBI, 73 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty last year.
The biggest percentage of officers who were feloniously killed last year died in unprovoked attacks—suggesting they were targeted.
Knowledge like this is crucial for preventing future attacks against these sworn public servants. But we only know it because of the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted Data Collection.
While this data collection documents trends related to violence against law enforcement, its efforts are about way more than creating infographics and statistical reports. The LEOKA program works hand-in-hand with another Bureau program—the Officer Safety and Awareness Training Program—to put that data to work in helping these public servants stay alive.
On this episode, we’ll learn how the LEOKA Data Collection is leveraging quantitative and qualitative data to help law enforcement officers protect themselves from becoming statistics.
I’m Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory, and this is Inside the FBI.
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Oprihory: The FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted Data Collection—or LEOKA, for short—is a product of the Bureau’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which has been gathering crime data since the 1930s.
Both LEOKA and its parent program are housed at the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, a West Virginia hub for all-things data in the Bureau—from statistics and tips to biometrics and gun background checks.
According to CJIS Deputy Assistant Director Gregory Nelsen, the LEOKA Data Collection was born out of the division’s partnership with law enforcement.
Gregory Nelsen: The data that we have here at CJIS is owned by the law enforcement community. All of our data points and collections are owned by those agencies, so it's voluntarily provided to us.
Oprihory: Likewise, before CJIS can start collecting any kind of data, it gets advice from an Advisory Policy Board that’s composed of police chiefs and other law enforcement executives, Nelsen explained.
Nelsen: Anything we do with it, we run it by this group who is the law enforcement representatives for the 18,600-plus agencies.
Oprihory: While the actual creation of the LEOKA data collection was decidedly more complicated, he explained, it initially stemmed from an Advisory Police Board request for CJIS to gather data on behalf of law enforcement agencies.
Nelsen: We agreed to collect the data, they agreed to provide it, and we agreed to share it back to the community and the law enforcement officers or agencies as part of that agreement. That's kind of a high level of how it came to us.
Oprihory: The LEOKA Data Collection aims to reduce law enforcement officer deaths and assaults by providing data for trainings relevant to law enforcement safety, explained Erin Mullins, a CJIS-based Uniform Crime Reporting program analyst who specializes in LEOKA data.
According to Mullins, the collection specifically focuses on officers who are killed or assaulted while on duty in an official capacity.
Erin Mullins: Now, we know officers are never off-duty. They can step into that role at any point in time. So that's a huge factor in our collection, you know, when we're looking at these incidents and we're trying to weed through the data.
It's very specific and it's important that we work with the agencies and with the field offices, so that we're sure we're capturing that sharper picture.
Oprihory: The data covers deaths of and attacks on duly sworn city, university and college, county, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement officers who, at the time of the incident:
Normally wore or carried a badge
Normally carried a firearm
Were duly sworn and had full arrest powers
Were members of a law enforcement agency
Were acting in an official capacity, whether on or off duty, at the time of the incident
And, in the case of line-of-duty deaths, who lost their lives as a direct result of injuries sustained while on the job.
The LEOKA program has two main jobs.
Firstly, it compiles, crunches, and then publicly publishes data on on-duty assaults and deaths. As Nelsen explains:
Nelsen: We put out monthly reports about law enforcement officers killed and assaulted. We work with our other headquarters entity, [the FBI’s] Office of Partner Engagement. We work with [the] Criminal Investigative Division, because it's important to the FBI as a whole to, whatever we know, to get it out to the community as quickly as possible. And we do those monthly and then biannual reports on killed and assaulted.
Mullins: Our felonious and accidental tables, along with our federal tables, go out in May. And then, in the fall, we see our assault tables.
Oprihory: The LEOKA program gets its data on officer deaths through its Strategic Information and Operations Center, Mullins explained.
Mullins: We process those on the backend, work with the field office that's in that AOR. And we correlate with the victim officers’ agencies to collect those details of that death or killing on the backend through our LEOKA database.
Oprihory: Assault data, on the other hand, is collected quarterly via the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System.
NIBRS captures details on each single crime incident—as well as on separate offenses within the same incident—including information on victims, known offenders, relationships between victims and offenders, arrestees, and property involved in crimes. It also captures the circumstances surrounding and context of crimes, such as where and when they were committed.
The LEOKA program is also in the process of refining the data it shares with the public, Mullins said.
Mullins: We're in the process now at looking at the data points that we're collecting, and working on evolving those and kind of narrowing down on the actual incident so that we can provide a more granular picture of the data that we are putting out there.
Oprihory: Since participation in the LEOKA data collection is completely voluntary, Mullins said the biggest hurdle is encouraging law enforcement agencies to participate.
Mullins: I think if agencies were more aware of how the data is put into use, and that it's going back into their agencies, and that it's made to help their officers and to protect them out in the field, I think it would be vastly more used and participation numbers would increase, if it was just more broadly marketed.
Oprihory: For this reason, she said, LEOKA program staff is obsessive about outreach, contacting law enforcement agencies and enlisting FBI field office assistance in hopes of driving up participation.
But the LEOKA data collection isn’t just important for law enforcement agencies, Nelsen told us. Giving the American public access to information about line of duty deaths and assaults is also huge for transparency, he said.
Nelsen: There should be no secrets behind law enforcement officers killed, law enforcement officers assaulted. I think all good can come from it. Academia uses it to instruct future law enforcement officers. The media uses it for accuracy, to say, "Hey, here are the numbers." We often use it to refute a story out there that's inaccurate story—"No, here's the data." So, there shouldn't be any secrets.
I think it's important for the community to see the dangers, one, that law enforcement are faced with.
I think it's important for the community to know, "Hey, police officers, every day, come in contact with some type of violent or unknown offender, two in the morning, three in the morning, by themselves with, sometimes, no backup." I think it's important to try to get that message out there to the community as to the dangers of that job and what they do.
Oprihory: So, what’s Mullins’ message to law enforcement agencies who might be on the fence about sharing relevant data with the FBI?
Mullins: Report to your National Incident-Based Reporting System, report your deaths, because it is important, because this is going out to help these agencies. It's to help them. It's to protect them. And it's to create better communities.
Oprihory: The LEOKA program’s second job is to funnel the data it collects to the FBI’s Officer Safety and Awareness Training—or OSAT—Program.
Each year, OSAT trainings arm thousands of local, state, federal, and tribal law enforcement partners with data-derived insights about line of duty deaths and assaults—such as behaviors or perceptions that can make an officer seem more vulnerable in the eyes of a would-be attacker.
Kevin Harris: We try to tailor it to the agency because we have a lot of content.
Oprihory: That’s Kevin Harris, a law enforcement consultant with the OSAT Program.
Harris: Ideally, agencies will request an eight-hour training class, and so we cover a bunch of different topics. We cover things like arrest situations because, historically, that's the way a lot of officers are getting killed, because you're getting ready to put your hands on a suspect and that's where they're getting assaulted and killed.
Because of recent trends, we incorporated a block on ambush as an unprovoked attack. Foot pursuits, we found, a big killer of law enforcement.
Oprihory: OSAT trainings also address why training matters, how it can help deter attacks on law enforcement, and how to rely on that training once you’re on the job.
Harris: You can be trained to do something all day long—you could be the most trained officer in the world—but if you don't adhere to that training, if you don't follow your procedures when you're out there in the field doing something, then that's when you're going to run into trouble.
Oprihory: In addition to using LEOKA data to ensure that progressive iterations of its trainings depict—and prepare officers for—the most current threat picture possible, OSAT uses the data to help inform its research into the “why” behind attacks.
The qualitative findings of OSAT’s research—which includes interviews with officers who’ve survived on-duty attacks and criminals who’ve attacked or killed officers, and creating case studies of individual incidents—also help shape its trainings.
The program works with partners such as the West Virginia University Psychology Department, as well as an FBI oversight organization that ensures all research efforts are safe and ethical, to develop standardized interview questions and protocols.
The process gives survivors a chance to discuss factors, such as their individual backgrounds, training, and education, to give researchers a snapshot of who they are.
Harris: And then, at some point, they're going to get a chance to just kind of freewheel about the incident and tell us about that in their own words. And similar with the offender, there's a protocol booklet so that everybody gets the same questions, but they get to tell it in their own words.
Oprihory: So, what common threads have emerged?
According to Harris, officers must understand the importance of training since offenders train to defeat law enforcement.
OSAT research has also found that perception—both in terms of how officers perceive the inherent risk in a scenario they’re faced with, and how offenders perceive officers’ level of personal preparedness—plays a pertinent role in attacks against on-duty officers.
For example, one offender who was interviewed by OSAT admitted to “sizing up” law enforcement before deciding whether or not to proceed with an attack.
Voice: The first thing I noticed was that he, he didn’t, he didn’t have a presence about him...
Oprihory: ...he told the OSAT interviewer, according to an interview transcript shared with Inside the FBI, adding that:
Voice: This guy inspired no fear in me and no hesitation.
Oprihory: The offender added that the officer...
Voice: ...looked, and this is again, it’s not meant to offend or disparage, but he looked sloppy, and... right there, I formed the opinion in a microsecond, 'I can take this guy.'
Oprihory: FBI Officer Safety and Awareness Training doesn’t cost law enforcement agencies a dime, and OSAT instructors are prepared to deploy anywhere within the United States to train their officers.
Harris: Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org because we're free. We're covered. We will come out and train them completely free of charge. All we ask is give us a place to have the training and fill the seats with officers.
Oprihory: OSAT was originally part of the LEOKA program, but was later broken off into its own standalone program. Despite this organizational shift, the two programs continue to work hand-in-hand to keep law enforcement officers safe.
The LEOKA and OSAT program teams work year-round to help protect our nation’s law enforcement officers.
Mullins: It’s really personal to me, because my entire career has kind of been driven around the public.
I worked foster care and then I was in community corrections. And I worked closely with law enforcement agencies, so I saw what they do and I saw their purpose, and I saw their need.
Harris: You always hope that maybe you impact them—one officer, maybe someday down the road, they come into a situation and maybe they don't even think about it, but maybe that made the difference, and maybe that saved their life that day or whatever.
And you may never know whether it did or not, but that's always kind of the hope and the thought in your mind.
Oprihory: What’s his biggest advice for law enforcement officers who might listen to this podcast but never take an OSAT training?
Harris: The most important thing at the end of the day is to make it home at the end of that shift, every single day. And I mean, that's what's important. So, just remember to not let their guard down, to not allow their perceptions, you know, the things that they see, to not allow that to dictate how they handle someone. Continue your training, and most importantly, adhere to your training. And do things the way you've been trained to do them and don't stray from that just because you don't think a situation seems dangerous to you.
Oprihory: You can learn more about the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division at fbi.gov/cjis.
And you can use the FBI Crime Data Explorer—located at fbi.gov/cde—to explore the Bureau's full slate of crime data—including statistics on line-of-duty assaults and deaths, law enforcement officers’ use of force, and more. The online resource is free to access and is regularly updated.
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This has been another episode of Inside the FBI.
You can follow us on your favorite podcast player, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify. You can also subscribe to email updates about new episodes by visiting fbi.gov/podcasts.
I’m Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory with the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks for tuning in.