ATLANTA — Two officers in a remote Alaska town were ambushed as they chatted on a street. Two California deputies were killed by an arson suspect with a high-powered rifle as they tried to serve him a warrant. Two other officers doing anti-drug work were gunned down by men along a busy Arkansas highway.
These so-called cluster killings of more than one officer helped make 2010 a particularly dangerous year for law enforcement. Deaths in the line of duty jumped 37 percent to about 160 from 117 the year before, according to numbers as of Dec. 28 compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a nonprofit that tracks police deaths.
There also was a spike in shooting deaths. Fifty-nine federal, state and local officers were killed by gunfire in 2010, a 20 percent jump from last year’s figures when 49 were killed. And 73 officers died in traffic incidents, a rise from the 51 killed in 2009, according to the data.
Craig Floyd, director of the Washington-based fund, said the rise in fatalities could be an aftershock of the nation’s economic troubles as officers in some communities cope with slashed budgets.
“We’re asking our officers to do more with less. We’re asking them to fight conventional crime, and we’re asking them to serve on the front lines in the war against terror,” he said.
Last year’s toll of 117 officers killed was a 50-year low that encouraged police groups. But this year’s total is more the norm than an anomaly: The number of police deaths has topped 160 five times since 2000, including 240 in 2001. The annual toll routinely topped 200 in the 1970s and before that in the 1920s.
The deaths were spread across more than 30 states and Puerto Rico — with the most killings reported in Texas, California, Illinois, Florida and Georgia. The two law enforcement agencies with the most deaths were the California Highway Patrol and the Chicago Police Department, each with five.
Ten of the shooting deaths came from five tragedies in which several officers were shot and killed in groups.
The cluster shootings started in February, when authorities say two Fresno County, Calif., deputies were shot by an arson suspect who had vowed to kill investigators and himself rather than go to prison. The killings led to a daylong gunbattle that ended in the gunman’s death as well.
In March, San Juan authorities say two park rangers who were serving as guards at Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural Resources were gunned down by invaders who jumped a fence during an attempted robbery.
Two West Memphis police officers doing anti-drug work in May were shot to death by two men wielding AK-47s along an Arkansas interstate. The suspects were later killed in a shootout that injured the local sheriff and a deputy at a crowded Walmart parking lot.
In June, authorities say a man wanted for writing a bad check shot and killed two Tampa, Fla., police officers after he was pulled over at 2:15 a.m. one morning. And in August a man was charged with killing two officers who were chatting in front of his home in the tiny Alaska village of Hoonah.
“There is a more cold-blooded, brazen criminal element prowling the streets of America today,” Floyd said, suggesting that cultural and economic changes could be spurring the trend. “These people have a lack of respect for human life, and they don’t think twice about killing a cop. They pose a real threat to our law enforcement officers.”
The uptick in traffic deaths was particularly troubling, analysts said.
The research didn’t reveal what led to many of the traffic deaths, partly because local departments often don’t keep complete records those fatalities, said Floyd. But he said it suggests that more research is needed to investigate possible driver fatigue and distracted driving.
“We’re asking citizens not to talk and text on their cell phones, but we’re providing officers with laptop computers and cell phones and radios,” he said. “That means taking their attention from the road. Are we putting too many distractions in police vehicles?”