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Why 2021 Was the Deadliest Year Yet for Police Officers

By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice

Law enforcement is a noble profession that comes with a great deal of stress and danger. In 2021, a record number of police officers (458) died, up 55% from 2020. In fact, 2021 was the most dangerous year in our nation’s history for law enforcement, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

Why Being a Police Officer Is a Dangerous Job

Law enforcement is a highly hazardous profession because of the uncertainty of 911 calls that officers receive and the uncertainty of interactions with the public. For example, domestic violence calls are an especially dangerous situation for police officers. In these types of calls, officers are typically called to a home where there is a high level of emotion among people in the home.

Consequently, police officers can quickly become the target of someone’s emotional and violent rage. During these 911 calls, officers are at risk of being attacked by a furious person while attempting to make an arrest of a family member.

Another substantial risk for police officers involves traffic accidents. In 2021, 58 police officers lost their lives in traffic-related fatalities.

Police officers conduct traffic stops in all kinds of weather and conditions, which increases their risk of being struck by a vehicle. Working at night offers the additional danger of being struck by a drunk driver.

Police Officers Deal with Angry and Violent Criminals

Law enforcement officers typically have many interactions with citizens throughout the workday. While most of those interactions are routine and mundane, officers also interact with angry, violent criminals.

Officers are seen as a threat to an offender’s freedom, because those police officers have the power to make an arrest when they encounter someone committing a crime. As a result, police officers are subject to being beaten or shot by one or more offenders.

Officers must make split-second decisions to save their lives and the lives of the public. In 2021, 62 police officers from firearm-related offenses, an increase of 38% compared to 2020.

Stress Is a Factor in Some Officer Deaths

Stress in policing has serious, long-term health implications for police officers. It places officers at an increased risk of suicide, raises the risk of cardiovascular disease and influences an officer’s mental health.

The problem of stress in policing often comes from repeated exposure to traumatic events that cause an officer to go from a normal heart rate and breathing pattern to a stress-related response. When police officers are exposed to sudden danger or an emergency call that requires them to immediately get to a scene and protect someone’s life, the brain hormone cortisol is released.

Repeated releases of cortisol over a career can lead to obesity, anxiety, and other health problems because the cortisol disrupts nearly all of the body’s processes. In 2021, 25 officers died in the line of duty from health-related illnesses, such as heart attacks and strokes.

The Coronavirus Pandemic Created More Fatalities in Policing

During the coronavirus pandemic, police officers continued to serve by interacting with the public and patrolling communities to keep people safe. However, this service during the pandemic came at a heavy price.

In 2020, 182 police officers died from COVID-19, and 301 officers died in 2021 from the same disease. At a time when many businesses had employees work remotely to keep them safe, police officers continued to go to work each day, which increased their risk of COVID-19 exposure.

Improving Police Officer Safety and Health

Law enforcement continues to be a dangerous profession. But police officers still continue to put on their uniform and risk their safety to protect us.

Proper training is needed to help officers prepare for the safety threats they experience in the field. Also, peer support programs and stress management training can be helpful in mitigating the long-term impacts of the trauma that officers experience over their careers. Officers who struggle with stress on the job should seek out mental health services such as EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs).

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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