In the Line of Fire: Learning from Assaults on Law Enforcement Officers

Article excerpt

On a spring Tuesday at noon, two officers in civilian dress, both assigned to investigative work, responded to an address to search for a robbery and burglary suspect. When one officer opened a closet door during the search, he was shot in the chest by a 41-year-old female hiding inside. A struggle ensued, and the officer returned fire, striking the offender. Both the officer and the assailant were transported to the hospital. The victim officer, a 28-year-old 4-year veteran, was released after 13 days and returned to duty. The assailant, who had a prior record for robbery, burglary, and assault, is confined to a wheelchair as a result of her wounds.

This scenario depicts 1 of 40 cases examined by the authors in an attempt to answer two important questions: Why and how are officers assaulted in the line of duty? Every year, more than 50,000 law enforcement officers are assaulted, one-third of those assaulted are injured, and about 70 are killed.(1) Why do some officers die and other officers survive in substantively similar situations? No simple answers exist.

A previous study, Killed in the Line of Duty,(2) scrutinized felonious killings of law enforcement officers, but by nature, it omitted a crucial perspective-that of the victim officers. In the continuing search for the best ways to prepare officers to face danger in the line of duty, In the Line of Fire: Violence Against Law Enforcement focuses on the survivors and presents extensive information on the victim officers, the offenders, and the incidents that brought them together in a potentially deadly mix.(3)


Over a 3-year period, the authors examined 40 incidents selected from 625 closed cases submitted by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Selection criteria included the size and type of the victim's agency, the type of assignment the officer was working at the time of the assault, and the region of the country in which the officer worked. The selected cases occurred between 1987 and 1994 and included 52 law enforcement officers and 42 offenders.

After choosing cases for the study, the authors gathered as much information as possible about each incident in order to elicit specific, useful responses during interviews. They reviewed the departments' case files, which included offense reports, statements made by assisting officers, witnesses, and offenders, and later, other documentation provided by the victim officers, such as reports, performance ratings, newspaper articles, and police radio transmissions. Interviews of the surviving victim officers focused on their background, family structure, law enforcement training, preassault behavior and experience, conditions at the time of the assault, and description of the incident.

The authors also reviewed and evaluated pertinent information obtained from law enforcement and correctional records on each offender. Interviews of the offenders focused on seven areas: background, family structure, attitudes toward authority, criminal history, weapons training and use, description of the incident setting, and perspective on the incident.

To protect the victim officers and their departments from unwanted attention and to encourage them to be as candid as possible, the authors granted anonymity to the study participants. Similarly, the offenders and the penal institutions that housed them were granted anonymity.


The sample for this study was small and not scientifically random; therefore, results should not be generalized. Nevertheless, the wealth of data the study presents on the officers, the offenders, and the incidents that brought them together can provide insight for administrators evaluating their departments' policies, training, and procedures, as well as for individual officers evaluating their own daily practices.

The Officers

The 52 officers who agreed to participate in the study realized that their actions would come under intense scrutiny. …