On December 30, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reported that 126 police officers had been killed on duty in 2014. That's nearly a 25 percent jump from 2013, when the organization reported 102 fatalities.
The rise is likely to fuel anxiety among those who believe that police officers in America are under attack. But it's important to put this in context, given what we know about attacks on police.
Over half of police deaths on the job are accidental
The Memorial Fund doesn't distinguish between officers who are killed by suspects — what the FBI calls "felonious killings" of police — and officers who are killed by accident (for example, during training exercises). But the FBI's annual report on Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted does count the two separately — and it consistently finds that more than half of all officer fatalities are accidental.
When the FBI counts felonious deaths alone, the number of officers killed each year is well within double digits:
Even counting accidental deaths, the FBI's numbers are lower than the Memorial Fund's: the FBI reported that 78 officers were feloniously or accidentally killed in the line of duty in 2013, for example, while the Memorial Fund says that 102 were. Two factors that could help explain the disparity: the FBI doesn't collect data from every law enforcement agency in the country (its 2013 report covered 78.2 percent of America); and the Memorial Fund counts deaths from "job-related illnesses" as officer fatalities.
But even with the discrepancy between the two data sources, it's reasonable to assume that many of the 126 officer deaths the Memorial Fund says happened in 2014 were accidents.
2013 was an unusually safe year for police officers
As you can see from the above chart, the FBI found that 2013 had an unusually low number of "felonious killings" of police officers: felonious killings were down over 40 percent from 2012 to 2013. That means that 2014 could see a big spike in killings relative to 2013, while still being in line with other years.
The Memorial Fund shows the same thing: 2013 was unusually safe for police. So the 126 killings of police in 2014 — which, again, include both felonious and accidental killings — are a big jump from 2013, but they're still the fourth-lowest in the past twenty years of the Memorial Fund's data.
To really understand issues of officer safety, though, it's important to think about not just how often police are killed, but how — and how often they're attacked, period. Here's Vox on what we know about attacks on police.