People across the country are aware of the dangers law enforcement officers face doing their jobs. And while many think of danger in terms of shootings and other forms of violence, one VERIFY viewer wondered about a different threat law enforcement has faced over the last year and a half: COVID-19.
Deborah said she had seen reports that COVID-19 was the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers and wanted to know if that was true.
Is COVID-19 the leading cause of death for on-duty law enforcement officers so far in 2021?
Yes, COVID-19 is the leading cause of death for on-duty law enforcement officers so far in 2021. It was also the leading cause of death in 2020.
WHAT WE FOUND
Two nonprofit organizations, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and the Officer Down Memorial Page, track law enforcement line-of-duty deaths in the United States. The organizations consider police officers, sheriff’s deputies, officers in federal agencies with the power to arrest, correctional officers, and military police officers performing typical law enforcement duties as law enforcement officers.
A banner on the Officer Down Memorial Page website says, “COVID is the #1 killer of LEOs [law enforcement officers] in 2020 and 2021.”
The Officer Down Memorial Page considers COVID-19 the cause of a line-of-duty death when it’s determined an officer contracted the virus as a direct result of their duties.
“Evidence of a direct relation between a duty-related incident and the contraction of a disease or illness must be presented in the form of official documentation,” the group says.
According to Officer Down Memorial Page data, there have been 316 line-of-duty deaths in 2021, as of Sept. 29. Of those deaths, 198 have been linked to officers contracting COVID-19 while on duty. Gunfire, which is the second-leading line-of-duty cause of death, has led to 43 deaths so far in 2021.
The Officer Down Memorial Page says there were 372 total line-of-duty deaths in 2020, including 243 deaths linked to COVID-19.
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund releases mid-year and full-year fatality reports. In the 2021 mid-year report, the group identified 155 federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement officers who had died in the line of duty as of June 30. Of the 155 officers who had died, 71 died “as a result of contracting [COVID-19] while executing official duties.”
“The 155 line-of-duty deaths are on a pace to exceed the 295 law enforcement fatalities recorded in 2020, which was the second-highest total on record,” the group said in the report. “At this rate, officer line-of-duty deaths could near the 1930 toll of 312 fatalities, which is the most ever recorded by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in a single year.”
One law enforcement agency hit especially hard by COVID-19 has been the Lake City Police Department in Georgia. Police chief Tony Whitmire said within five weeks, two officers in the 16-officer department died after contracting COVID-19 -- and their deaths were determined to be line-of-duty deaths.
“I've been in this business a little over 40 years, and I don't know that anything has affected law enforcement like this has,” Whitmire said of the pandemic.
Whitmire said it’s not surprising to him that COVID-19 has been the leading cause of death for on-duty law enforcement officers. That’s because while officers can take safety measures such as wearing masks, social distancing and getting vaccinated, they can’t eliminate contact with the public.
“We can't work from home, we can't really isolate, we have to be out there,” Whitmire said. “Just because the pandemic was here and folks were isolating and not going to work and all those kinds of things didn’t mean that we still didn't have calls to answer and people that needed help.”
In Washington, a state patrol detective, 38-year-old Eric Gunderson, died on Sept. 26 from COVID-19. Chris Loftis, director of communications for Washington State Patrol, said Gunderson was traveling while representing the agency when he contracted COVID-19.
“We lost a family member,” Loftis said.
He said Gunderson’s death is another tragic example of how dangerous COVID-19 is, and the risks law enforcement officers take every day doing their job.
“We cannot isolate ourselves. Our business is the people's business,” Loftis said. “Detective Gunderson’s loss has just made it that much more real to us because it's not just a statistic or a name on the news. It's a person we know.”