FIRST ON FOX: The number of police officers who died in the line of duty ticked down in 2023, but police still face serious threats of being shot while on duty, according to data exclusively obtained by Fox New Digital.
"We never like to use the word, or the turn of phrase, ‘good news' when reporting about even a single police officer dying in the line of duty, but certainly this is a welcoming trend, particularly because in prior years we posted some really, really big numbers," National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund CEO Bill Alexander told Fox News Digital in a phone interview this week.
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund is a nonprofit organization established in 1984 that honors law enforcement officers by remembering police who lost their lives in the line of duty, including by building the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., organizing National Police Week and coordinating educational outreach programs for departments. The nonprofit is also the leading authority on officer fatalities and released a report Thursday morning detailing how many officers died in the line of duty in 2023.
A total of 136 federal, state, county, municipal, military, tribal and campus officers died in the line of duty last year, according to the report, which is a 39% decrease compared to the 224 officers who died in the line of duty in 2022.
COVID-related deaths loomed large since 2020 among officer deaths but ticked down last year, claiming the lives of five officers, which is a drastic drop from the 405 officers in 2021 who died from COVID-related issues. Traffic-related fatalities, including car accidents and officers struck by a vehicle, decreased by 27% in 2023 compared to 2022, claiming 37 lives last year.
Gunfire was the leading cause of death for officers in 2023, accounting for 47 lives lost. The figure is a 25% decrease from the 63 officers killed by gunfire in 2022. The data shows that the 47 officers were shot while responding to a range of emergency calls, including nine officers who were shot and killed while trying to arrest someone, seven killed while handling domestic disturbance calls, six while investigating suspicious people or circumstances, and five who were ambushed.
"We believe that 47 police officers died by gunfire. In other words, they were shot and killed, really murdered, I think would be the appropriate term," Alexander told Fox News Digital.
The downward trend breaks from 2021 data, when the organization recorded the highest number of line-of-duty deaths at 586. The dismal data from 2021 follows the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic as well as when calls to defund the police rang out from coast to coast following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis in 2020.
"We're thinking 2021, 2022 as years where we were seeing the evidence of increased risk and certainly dangerous conditions on the road for police officers," Alexander told Fox News Digital when asked if the 2023 data signifies a break from the anti-police rhetoric of 2020.
Alexander warned, however, "This number that we're doing for 2023 at 47, on paper, it seems to indicate that somehow conditions might be improving on the street for the men and women doing the job," he continued. "To counterbalance that, though, I would say to you that our friends and partners over at the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) have just recently released their annual report. And they're showing that the number of officers who have been shot and actually struck is the highest levels that they've ever recorded since they started tracking that data."
The Fraternal Order of Police released a study this month, finding that 2023 set a record for the most police officers shot in a year at 378.
"With the COVID-19 pandemic behind us and after so many Americans have seen the tragic consequences of the defund the police movement, it was our hope that these numbers would be a high-water mark. We were wrong," Patrick Yoes, the FOP's national president, said in the group's press release.
"Instead, 378 officers were shot in the line of duty in 2023, the highest number the FOP has ever recorded."
Alexander said that the drop in firearm deaths compared to the FOP’s staggering number of officers shot could be due to advancements in how departments best protect officers. He pointed to the proliferation of bullet-proof vests, emergency care kits, tools that help clot blood to stop someone from bleeding out, and training as potential factors that helped save the lives of the hundreds of officers shot last year.
"I don't want to downplay the fact that the number this year is lower than it was last year. That's obviously, again, a welcomed trend, but I do worry that it's masking what is otherwise really, I think I could argue, increasingly dangerous conditions for the men and women doing the job," he said.
Alexander pointed to one officer, Greensboro, North Carolina, Sgt. Philip Nix, who was shot and killed on Dec. 30 as an example of the ultimate sacrifice some officers make while protecting the community.
Nix, 50, was shot multiple times and killed last month when he reportedly confronted people attempting to steal beer at a gas station. Nix was not on duty at the time of his death, but he had his badge and gun, according to local reports.
"I think while absolutely tragic, and my heart breaks for everyone who knew and loved Sgt. Nix and all of the other officers who died last year, I think his service and sacrifice right there is a perfect exemplar of the profession writ large. That men and women … in the law enforcement profession across our country every single year, every single day, go to work, even if they aren't in uniform."
"They’re working all the time, always cognizant of their surroundings and always cognizant of the need for them to be an integral part of their community and be serving as they have sworn to protect the men and women of their community. And I think that is an obligation that the men and women in uniform feel really to their bones," he said.
All in, the report published Thursday found that 126 male officers were killed in the line of duty in 2023 compared to 10 female officers, at the average age of 45. On average last year, the fallen officers had 15 years of service under their belts before their deaths and left behind two children. The data released Thursday is preliminary, and could be updated with additional names as more information is gathered.
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund has a memorial in Washington, D.C., remembering the 23,785 police officers across the nation who have lost their lives throughout the nation’s history.
Alexander said the memorial was initially able to hold 24,000 names when it was first dedicated in 1991, and it can now hold an additional 12,000 names after a recent expansion. But he noted that the group is running out of room for the names of fallen officers and that the organization will likely have to expand the memorial yet again or devise another plan.
"I use a phrase here at the memorial when I talk to people that, out on our memorial right now, there's a quote in the southwest corner from then-President [George H.W.] Bush when we inaugurated the [memorial in] ‘91 that says: ’Carved on these walls is the story of America, of a continuing quest to preserve both democracy and decency, and to protect a national treasure that we call the American dream,'" he said.
"And I say to people that there is, and has been and continues to be, a cost to protecting our democracy. And tragically, and unfortunately, every single year that cost is measured in the lives of hundreds of men and women who give their lives to protect us. And I hope that this data permeates the sort of social media, blogosphere, even news media bubble and resonates with people, resonates with every single citizen of this country, and they hopefully take a moment to pause and consider those men and women are out there trying to protect me, and too many of them died trying to do their job."