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As social justice movements and multiple high-profile trials have brought increased scrutiny to law enforcement officers, some lawmakers and citizens alike have voiced more support for law enforcement and empathy with the challenges of the positions.
Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa was among those calling on Americans to “back the blue” on Jan. 14, when he tweeted about the number of police killed on the job in 2021.
# of police killed on job in 2021 highest since 9/11 attacks I noted tragic trend of police ambushes/murders in Judic hrg this wk We must back the blue +fight violent crime targeting our communities &law enforcement Judic Cmte shld hold hrg on growing crime wave sweeping USA— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) January 14, 2022
Claim: “The number of police killed on the job in 2021 was the highest since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.” (Edited from tweet for clarity.)
In his Jan. 14 post to Twitter, Grassley compared police killings from 2021 with the number of law enforcement officers killed in the 2001 terrorist attacks, saying, “We must back the blue and fight violent crime targeting our communities and law enforcement. The (Senate) Judiciary Committee should hold a hearing on the growing crime wave sweeping the USA.” (Edited for clarity.)
Grassley also noted the trend in a Jan. 11 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing the week of the tweet.
When asked about the claim, Grassley’s staff pointed to a statistic cited by FBI Director Chris Wray in a Jan. 13 op-ed. In that op-ed, Wray wrote that 73 officers were “feloniously killed in the line of duty” in 2021, which was “the highest annual number since the 9/11 attacks.”
The language of Grassley’s Tweet is slightly less specific about the types of police killings that were at their highest levels since the terrorist attacks. “Police killed on the job,” as he said, is not necessarily the same terminology the FBI uses to keep statistics on law enforcement officer homicides. Among statistics of those killed in the line of duty, the FBI differentiates between those killed “feloniously” and accidentally.
A felonious killing is one where an officer “was fatally injured as a direct result of a willful and intentional act by an offender,” according to the FBI’s annual Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted Report.
The number of officers feloniously killed on the job last year, 73, was a significant jump from the last several years: 46 in 2020, 48 in 2019, 57 in 2018 and 46 in 2017, according to the FBI.
It does barely breach the high water mark set by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which resulted in 72 law enforcement officer deaths. The deaths related to the attacks are kept separate from the total of other felonious deaths for 2001, which was 70.
The level was reached again after 2001. In 2011, 72 officers were also killed feloniously, matching the level set in 2001. Most years in between 2001 and 2021 ranged from the 40s to 60s. The lowest number over the last two decades was 27 in 2013.
Even accidental deaths on the job have been up, with 56 last year compared to a range of 41 to 50 from 2017 to 2020, according to the FBI. Suicides are compiled separately and excluded from accidental death counts.
More broadly than “felonious” killings, the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line-of-duty, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, has increased dramatically in the last year. In 2021, the organization marked 458 line-of-duty deaths in their annual fatalities report, a 55 percent increase from 2020’s total and the highest number since 1930.
About two-thirds of those deaths were attributed to COVID-19 — the single-highest cause of law enforcement deaths last year, the organization said. Inclusion of COVID-19 deaths has sparked controversy among critics of law enforcement, who say law enforcement agencies and organizations are taking advantage of the virus to inflate their line-of-duty death statistics and weaponize them as propaganda.
Police counting COVID deaths within their ranks as “line of duty deaths” and then using the inflated numbers to claim that record numbers of cops died in “the line of duty” last year should tell you everything you need to know about how #copaganda works.— Dyjuan Tatro (@DyjuanTatro) January 12, 2022
Though the number of officers killed feloniously in 2021 was one higher than the number killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the number was again matched in 2011. It would be more accurate for Wray to note — and for Grassley to later tweet — that the number of officers killed in 2021 was the highest since both 2011 and 2001. To say that 2021’s number is the highest since the attacks ignores the spike that happened 11 years ago.
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Members of the Fact Checker team are Elijah Decious, Erin Jordan, Michaela Ramm and Marissa Payne. This Fact Checker was researched and written by Elijah Decious.