We found that both intentional and unintentional police mortality rates were substantially higher in New York compared with London for most of the twentieth century, but the magnitudes of these rates decreased significantly by the 1980s and 1990s. We also found that most occupational police deaths in New York were intentional, while most in London were unintentional. In addition, gunshot wounds (both intentional and unintentional) accounted for more occupational police deaths (51.6%) in New York than all other mechanisms combined. Two questions arise from these findings: (1) why were there such remarkable disparities in the occupational police deaths rates between New York and London; and (2) what occurred in the latter part of the 20th century that reduced or resolved these disparities?
Several socioeconomic and occupational factors may have accounted for the differences in police deaths between New York and London. Specifically, the bimodal distributions of both intentional and unintentional occupational police mortality rates for New York (compared to relatively stable rates for London) may have resulted from sociodemographic changes occurring during the twentieth century. New York and London have similar population and geographic dimensions and similar histories of the development of their bureaucratic, uniformed police forces during the 1800s in response to concerns of popular disorder and crime.23,24
However, New York underwent rapid population growth during the 20th century while the population change in London was significantly less remarkable. As previous research has indicated that overcrowding, socioeconomic status, and population changes are correlated significantly with the incidence of violent death, it is possible that these factors may have affected intentional police mortality in New York.25
In addition, it is possible that these factors may have also affected unintentional police mortality as the bimodal distribution was seen in both intentional and unintentional police deaths in New York and appeared to be correlated during the 20th century.
In particular, the high incidence of intentional police deaths in New York may be related to the high level of general violence in this city. Our temporal trend analyses found no relations between intentional occupational police deaths and general population homicides in either New York or London. Furthermore, in New York the general population homicide rate increased while the intentional police mortality rate decreased during the second half of the 20th century. In contrast, a time series study of intentional police deaths in the entire US from 1961 to 1985 found the strongest correlate (r2
0.81) to be the national general population homicide rate.26
In addition, ecological research of cities in the US, comparing of multiple geographic sites at single points in time, has identified several socioeconomic factors correlated with intentional police deaths in the US, including overall crime rate and poverty level.9,10,27
Not withstanding the differences in research methodology, these studies suggest that overall societal violence may play a role in intentional occupational police deaths. However, in New York it is likely that other socioeconomic and occupational factors influence the incidence of intentional occupational police deaths.
One of these factors may be the widespread availability and use of firearms in the US. This is exemplified by the 290 police officers killed by gunshot wounds in New York compared with only 14 police officers killed in London over the entire 100 year study period. A previous study of 21 large American cities found that intentional police deaths were strongly correlated with gun density (as measured by the incidence of suicides and homicides with guns).28
In contrast, firearm assaults on police in London are so uncommon that officers rarely carry firearms for their protection and rely on armed back‐up only when required.4,5
For the past 150 years, only selected police officers on specialist duties have been issued firearms for their personal protection.3,5
The decrease in availability and use of firearms in the UK is attributed to a culture in which the possession and use of firearms is strongly discouraged.4,5,23
In addition, firearm related homicides and suicides in the UK are relatively rare and usually committed with shotguns or rifle, rather than handguns.29,30,31
For example, in England and Wales firearms account for less than 10% of homicides and less than 5% of suicides.32
Shotguns were the most frequent weapon used in both of these types of intentional fatal injuries.
In the US, however, firearm ownership is very common and is significantly associated with increased risks for both homicide and suicide.33,34,35,36
Most of these firearm related homicides and suicides are committed with handguns, rather than shotguns or rifles.34
Unfortunately, firearms are also readily accessible to adolescents and young adults, increasing their risk for both intentional and unintentional injury and death.37,38
Consequently, with the increased availability and use of firearms (particularly handguns) in the US, the lethality of interpersonal violent assaults is likely to be markedly greater in the US compared with the UK. From 1979 through 1992, for example, 22.6% of aggravated assaults were committed with a firearm in the US compared with 5.0% in England.23
In addition, in 1992 the assault rate in England was 391.1 per 100
000 population compared to the US rate of 441.8 per 100
000 population, but the criminal homicide rate in England was 1.3 per 100
000 compared to the US rate of 9.3 per 100
Both intentional and unintentional police mortality rates were substantially higher in New York compared with London for most of the 20th century. Photo: Andrea Booher/FEMA News Photo.
If the large number of intentional police deaths in New York is related to firearm availability and use, then the marked reduction in intentional police deaths from the 1970s through 1990s may be related to the use of personal body armor designed to protect critical areas of the chest and trunk from gunshot wounds. The US Department of Justice estimates that 2700 law enforcement officers have benefited from the use of bullet resistant body armor since they became available for police officers in the 1970s.39,40
Although specific statistics are not available for the use of body armor by the New York Police Department, the self‐reported wear rates by frontline police officers in the US ranges from 52% in the Northeast to 83% in the West.40
Improving compliance with the use of body armor would likely further reduce gunshot wound police fatalities. In addition, body armor may provide some protection against stab wounds,39
but this effect may not be readily observed as stab wounds only accounted for 11 police deaths in New York and 10 police deaths in London for the entire 20th century.
Police training and policing strategies may also be related to intentional occupational police deaths. In England, several parliamentary acts were passed during the 19th century to develop a professional police force that emphasized restrained force and limited use of lethal weapons and tactics.24
In addition, better pay, improved training, and enhanced discipline all resulted in reduced turnover rates of new recruits and young officers and consequently improved public perception of the police.4,5
Improved training continued in the 20th century with the establishment of the Hendon Police College, and later the Peel Centre, that provided for advanced training in forensic science, detective work, information technology, and driving.3
Furthermore, the number of police officers increased significantly compared to a relatively stable population census. The overall goal of these efforts have been to develop and maintain the Metropolitan Police Service's tradition of civility in fighting crime.23
New York City adopted police training and policing strategies in the 1980s, including community policing methods, which integrate officers with community resources and emphasize crime prevention and proactive problem solving.41,42
Although these strategies have controversies, they are generally thought to reduce overall crime and violence against officers.42,43,44
In addition, upgrades in police information systems have allowed police jurisdictions to more efficiently identify problem areas and proactively address these areas. Moreover, the implementation of the United States Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1974 included a General Duty Clause that required all employers to recognize and reduce workplace hazards. This may have led to wider recognition of occupational risks by the New York Police Department.
The decline in unintentional police deaths in New York during the latter part of the 20th century is from reductions in motor vehicle collision deaths. Unfortunately, specific information (for example, whether the police officer was a passenger versus a pedestrian) concerning the injury deaths from motor vehicle collisions was not typically available from the historic account of the individual police death. However, during this time period several improvements were instituted to improve overall motor vehicle safety, including the use of seat belts and the development of safer cars.45,46
Two recent studies found that unbelted occupants of police cars were at much greater risk of fatal injury compared with belted occupants.11,12
These studies also found that 75% to 80% of all occupants of police cars were belted.
It is also very likely that advances in prehospital and in‐hospital medical and surgical care of severely injured patients have significantly reduced mortality from the intentional and unintentional occupational injuries sustained by police officers.47
However, these advances are not likely to be the only factor as reductions in both injury morbidity and mortality rates have been found in many other occupations (especially in mining and construction) in the US during the 20th century.48
These reductions can also be attributed to improved injury prevention research and development, but barriers to further progress in the reduction of occupational injuries and deaths still continue, including lack of formal scientific evaluation of the effectiveness of prevention strategies and technologies.48,49
Implications for prevention
While the differences in occupational police mortality between New York and London are likely from several factors, the significant declines in New York during the latter part of the 20th century indicate that at least some measures taken by the New York Police Department (specifically changes in policing methods, enhanced safety training, and the use of personal body armor) were successful at reducing the incidence of both intentional and unintentional police deaths. Limitations of ecological epidemiologic methods restrict us from directly attributing any single factor to causing or preventing police deaths in either metropolitan area.50
In addition, we compared only two cities, further limiting our ability to infer relations. However, there have been very few randomized controlled trials regarding specific interventions aimed at reducing occupational injuries and, like our study, many occupational injury prevention studies are comparisons over time or across different populations. Despite inherent limitations, these studies still provide meaningful information concerning the effectiveness of interventions aimed at decreasing injury morbidity and mortality in selected occupations.48
Our findings specify certain injury prevention interventions for police deaths that require further investigation.
- During the 20th century, 585 police officers in New York and 160 police officers in London died while participating in law enforcement activities.
- New York had markedly higher intentional police mortality rates compared to London throughout most of the 20th century.
- Intentional gunshot wounds comprised 290 police deaths in New York, but only 14 police deaths in London.
- In New York, gunshot wounds (intentional and unintentional) accounted for more occupational police deaths (51.6%) than did all other mechanisms combined.
- In London, motor vehicle collision was the most common cause (47.5%) of occupational police death.
- There were no correlations between the general population homicide rates and intentional police mortality rates in either New York or London.