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Is violence against police really on the rise?

You know we’re going to say “it depends.”

Lt. Bob Kroll
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi

In a commentary published in the Star Tribune Wednesday, Minneapolis Police union president Lt. Bob Kroll took aim at statements made by Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman regarding the circumstances of the shooting by a Minneapolis Police officer of Minneapolis woman Justine Damond.

Earlier in the week, Freeman, speaking to Minneapolis residents at a neighborhood forum, said of the shooting, “It didn’t have to happen. It shouldn’t have happened.”

After an audience member asked Freeman why the officer involved in the shooting, Mohamed Noor, wasn’t in jail as, the person contended, a civilian would be after such a shooting, Freeman said he hadn’t thought about it that way before.

Kroll called the county attorney’s fairness into question — Freeman will make the decision about whether or not to charge Noor. But Kroll went further, claiming that comments critical of police like those made by Freeman and other public officials are “fueling the creation of police widows and widowers.” He also linked comments by Gov. Mark Dayton about how Philando Castile shouldn’t have died at the hands of St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez to the deaths of five Dallas Police officers the next day.

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“Police officers are being killed at an increasing rate,” he wrote.

Leaving aside Kroll’s implication that remarks critical of police by public officials are causing such an increase, is he right to claim that killings of police officers are up in recent years? As with most things involving data, it depends on how you look at it.

National, local police deaths

In the short term, the number of police killed in the line of duty in the United States is indeed up. In 2016, the number of officers killed in the line of duty hit a five-year high, at 143, according to a report by the the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which tracks officer deaths. In the first six months of 2017, 65 officers were killed in the line of duty in the U.S., an increase of 30 percent over the same period the year prior.

Generally, though, in the last five years have seen fewer officer deaths than in the past.

In the 1980s, there was an average 191 officer deaths each year. In the 1990s, 163. The 2000s, 155 (on September 11, 2001, 72 officers died as a result of the terrorist attacks). So far this decade, since 2010, there have been an average of 145 officer deaths each year.

U.S. Law enforcement deaths by year, 1980-2016
Source: National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund

That’s the national picture. Looking just at Minnesota, the numbers are much lower.

In Minnesota, the number of cops killed in the line of duty has remained relatively stable since 2009, with between 0 and 1 death each year. 2010 was the one exception when there were two law enforcement deaths, according to the state’s uniform crime reports. That year, a Mahnomen County Sheriff’s deputy died after being shot in the head and stomach in 2009, and a Maplewood police sergeant was shot and killed by a carjacking suspect while sitting in his squad car, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

Minnesota law enforcement deaths by year, 2009-2016
Source: Minnesota Uniform Crime Reports

State reports, compiled by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension each year, aggregate crime statistics from law enforcement agencies across the state, making them the most reliable source of such data in Minnesota. Individual police departments are responsible for reporting deaths, so it is possible that some deaths are omitted from these reports.

In a tragic incident last week, 47-year-old William Mathews, a Wayzata police officer was struck and killed by the car of a woman alleged to be on drugs and using her phone as he cleared debris on State Highway 12, bringing 2017’s toll to at least one.

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Assaults on police officers are down a bit in Minnesota, from 415 officers assaulted in 2014 to 350 in 2016.

Minnesota law enforcement members assaulted by year, 2009-2016
Source: Minnesota Uniform Crime Reports

In 2016, 268 officers were assaulted with hands, feet or fists, 14 with firearms, eight with knives, and 60 with “other.” Most often, officers were assaulted when responding to disturbance calls. Officers were injured in 52 percent of cases.