In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Violence against the Police

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Availability of Data
  • Non-Deadly Police Assaults and Injuries
  • War on Cops Hypothesis

Criminology Violence against the Police
Cara Rabe-Hemp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0260


Violence against police is a statistically rare event, usually resulting in minor injuries for officers. However, based on the frequency with which police interact with the public, even those statistically small events can result in hundreds of police deaths and tens of thousands of assaults on police each year. The topic of violence against the police has been studied extensively starting in the 1970s, following public concern about the rising levels of violence leveled at police. This concern hastened the creation of the annual publication of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) annual publication, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, commonly referred to as LEOKA. The creation of the LEOKA report prompted the empirical study of violence against police, but research using varied data sources, including the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) and the Officer Down Memorial Page has also expanded our knowledge of the predictors of police assaults, injuries, and deaths. What we know today is that there is a variety of community, organizational, and situational/incident level correlates that impact police officer assaults and deaths. Over time, studying these factors has led to policies and practices that have contributed to the eventual reduction of officer injury and death associated with violence against the police. However, amidst several high-profile violent encounters between police and the public, scholars are exploring the claims of a war against police, testing the hypothesis that violence against the police may be on the rise.

General Overviews

What factors make police work dangerous? Early research attempted to find correlates that predicted police homicides. For example, Bailey 1982 and Bailey and Peterson 1994 assess the deterrent effects of the death penalty and executions for police homicides while controlling for important structural variables. Several later studies of officer assaults and murder, including Ellis, et al. 1993; Garner and Clemmer 1986; Hirschel, et al. 1994; Lichtenberg and Smith 2001; and Stanford and Mowry 1990 focus on certain types of police activities or calls for service that were the most dangerous, such as conducting traffic stops, and handling general disturbances and domestic violence calls. These early studies looked at the correlates that may explain the violence, but lack statistical and theoretical sophistication. Since the 1980s, there has been a consistent improvement in the statistical methodologies used to explore violence against police. Recently, with considerable statistical complexity, many studies, including Bierie, et al. 2016 (cited under Predictors of Violence: Incident Factors); Fridell and Pate 1995; Kaminski 2004; and Pinizzotto, et al. 2006 have attempted to update the research by exploring the variety of correlates that predict police assaults and homicides.

  • Bailey, William C. 1982. Capital punishment and lethal assaults against police. Criminology 19.4: 608–625.

    This study explores the use of capital punishment and its deterrent effect on police homicides through a multivariate analysis of state-level data. No support was found for the deterrent effect of the death penalty on police killings. Instead, police killings appeared to vary based on poverty, nonwhite population, employment, and urban population rates.

  • Bailey, William C., and Ruth D. Peterson. 1994. Murder, capital punishment, and deterrence: A review of the evidence and an examination of police killings. Journal of Social Issues 50.2: 53–74.

    This article improves upon Bailey and Peterson’s work by exploring a time series analysis of the possible deterrent effect of the provision for capital punishment, levels of execution, and the amount and type of television news coverage executions received on overall and different types of police killings from 1976–1989. Again, the results found no support for the relationship between the death penalty and police killings.

  • Ellis, Desmond, Alfred Choi, and Chris Blaus. 1993. Injuries to police officers attending domestic violence: An empirical study. Canadian Journal of Criminology (April): 149−168.

    This study determines the dangerousness of domestic disturbances to Canadian police officers through survey data from 646 police officers. They found that domestic violence calls were ranked third in terms of dangerousness behind arresting and controlling suspects or prisoners, and robbery.

  • Fridell, Lori A., and Anthony M. Pate. 1995. Death on patrol: Felonious homicides of American police officers. Washington, DC: Police Foundation.

    This Police Foundation report analyzes all incidents in which police officers were killed in the United States and its territories between 1983 and 1992 to examine what factors precipitated the deaths. The report discussed the potential for body armor as a way of preventing officer deaths.

  • Garner, Joel, and Elizabeth Clemmer. 1986. Danger to police in domestic disturbances: A new look. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

    This National Institute of Justice Research in Brief summary clarifies the term “disturbance call” to rebuff the assumption that a disturbance call only meant a domestic violence call. Instead the research clarifies that the disturbance category involved a variety of types of calls, including: bar fights, gang calls, general disturbances, and incidents where citizens are brandishing a firearm. This clarification is important to understanding why the authors argue that domestic violence calls are not the most dangerous calls for police.

  • Hirschel, J. David, Charles W. Dean, and Richard C. Lumb. 1994. The relative contribution of domestic violence to assault and injury of police officers. Justice Quarterly 11.1: 99−117.

    This article determines the relative risk of assault and injury for police officers responding to domestic disturbance calls. Using police calls for service data, the authors show that the domestic violence call is not the most dangerous call for service for police officers.

  • Kaminski, Robert J. 2004. The murder of police officers. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing.

    This book explores the macrostructural correlates of police homicide through the lens of criminal opportunity theory. The results suggest that social and physical guardianship were unrelated to police homicides.

  • Lichtenberg, Illya D., and Alisa Smith. 2001. How dangerous are routine police-citizen traffic stops? A research note. Journal of Criminal Justice 29.5: 419–428.

    In this research article, special attention is paid to the danger to police during traffic stops. Based on ten years of national traffic-stop data, the authors concluded that police homicides and arrests were infrequent during traffic stops.

  • Pinizzotto, Anthony J., Edward F. Davis, and Charles E. Miller. 2006. Violent encounters: A study of felonious assaults on our nation’s law enforcement officers. Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation.

    This National Institute of Justice study is the third part of a series of studies focused on police officer safety. The report argued that police and offenders perceive the interpersonal dynamics of their encounters differently, contributing to the likelihood of violence.

  • Stanford, Rose M., and Bonney L. Mowry. 1990. Domestic disturbance danger rate. Journal of Police Science and Administration 17.4: 244–249.

    This article explores what type of police activities and calls for service are the greatest risk for assault and injury to police officers. The study found that an officer is more likely to be assaulted on a general disturbance call, but more likely to be injured on a domestic call.

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