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Police deaths down 23 percent this year across US

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Police officers were among those injured during a confrontation with a gunman outside the Empire State Building in New York in August.

The number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty fell sharply in 2012, the first full year that two Obama administration police safety programs were in effect, according to preliminary figures released Thursday.

With four days left in the year, 127 federal, state and local officers have died on the job so far, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reported — 23 percent fewer than the 165 who were killed last year.

The nonprofit organization keeps a comprehensive tally of all law enforcement officers who die in the line of duty, honoring them each year at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington.

Craig W. Floyd, the organization's chief executive, credited close cooperation among federal, state and local authorities in bringing a new focus on officer safety. The decline follows two years of what he called "alarming" increases.

"The law enforcement community has banded together with laser-like focus on peace officer safety," Floyd said in a statement.

The decline also comes during the first full year under two Obama administration police safety programs, one run by the Justice Department and one by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Law Enforcement Safety Initiative, which Attorney General Eric Holder rolled out in March 2011 after meeting with police chiefs from major U.S. cities, created an Officer Safety and Wellness unit at the Justice Department, boosted training and technical assistance for local officers and invested $25 million in 96,000 bullet-resistant vests that were distributed this year among more than 4,000 local agencies.

Read the full report (.pdf)

Firearms-related deaths fell to 49 this year, the memorial fund reported — down a third from 72 last year and even below the 10-year average of 57 from 2001 to 2010.

Traffic-related incidents remained the biggest hazard, however, as they have been nearly every year since the late 1990s. But they, too, fell significantly, from 60 last year to 50 this year.

The NHTSA and the memorial fund launched their own Officer Safety Initiative in August 2011, funding research and public information campaigns around police safety in traffic-related incidents. 

A breakdown for 2012 wasn't reported, but the campaign noted that 42 percent of officers killed in auto crashes over the last 30 years weren't wearing safety belts. It said nearly all those deaths were preventable.

Other targets of the initiative include:

  • Reducing distracted driving — mainly officers' use of their cellphones instead of their radios, a practice many agencies prohibit that — which the fund said was responsible for about a quarter of all police traffic deaths.
  • Encouraging agencies to invest in high-visibility apparel so officers are easier to see during traffic stops at night.

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Shootings and traffic incidents were by far the leading hazards. Third was work-related illnesses, at 14, many of them heart attacks.

Overall, the statistics indicate that, despite its dangerous image, police work isn't among the most hazardous jobs in the U.S. The death totals work out to about 1.56 per every 100,000 sworn federal, state and local officers across the country — less than half the rate of 3.5 per 100,000 for U.S. workers in all jobs in 2011, the last year for which complete figures were available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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