Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Police1 (police1.com) on May 11, 2023. It is reprinted here with permission.
“Once a year, say a prayer for me. Close your eyes, and remember me…” — from “Sgt. MacKenzie,” a lament by Joseph Kilna MacKenzie
A Kentucky hamlet of 178 people rocketed (briefly) into the news on June 30, 2022, when a hostage standoff devolved into carnage. It was one of the bloodiest rural gun battles since the Young Brothers massacre in the Ozarks, nearly a hundred years before. Six officers were shot; three of them plus a K-9 died of their wounds. One of the survivors was saved by his vest; another endured nearly a dozen surgeries, ultimately losing a leg below the knee. The suspect hanged himself in his cell while awaiting trial.
In just that one violent month last year when 13 officers were shot and killed, 10 of them were from places I write about. The month began with two White Mountain Apache tribal police officers shot and one killed during a traffic stop, and two Nicholas County deputies shot, one fatally, at a domestic disturbance in a camp trailer in West Virginia. That “town” was a census-designated place of just 116 residents. So it continued to the very last day in June 2022, when all hell broke loose in Floyd County, Kentucky, and two Bibb County, Alabama, deputies were shot by an auto theft suspect, killing one of them.
Whenever an officer falls in a small town or a remote place, the same shocked refrain repeats: things like this don’t happen here. But that’s not true. It’s a pleasant fiction born of ignorance and a wish to remain sheltered, and that fiction puts rural officers at further risk when it provides cover for failures to staff, equip and train appropriately.
To counter this fallacy, I kept records of officers shot in 2022 as I have for four years now. This is an ongoing project, and I’ll give you a quick overview in case it’s new to you.
In 2016 I began helping a friend with a research project: to track each officer shot, logging the date, location and department involved. As we continued, I noticed an unexpected pattern: a lot of the officers we logged worked in small and rural places. Like most people, I had expected most dangerous places to be crowded, high-crime urban centers.
The emotional toll of following the shootings in an extraordinarily violent year overwhelmed my partner. The project was abandoned, and I lost access to the spreadsheet. In 2019, I restarted the project alone because I still saw the same patterns in the news, yet no one else seemed to remark upon it. I felt compelled to document what I saw, and if I can, prove it isn’t illusory, or coincidental. What isn’t counted is invisible.
Doesn’t Somebody Else Already Do This?
Sort of. LEOKA tracks officers hurt and killed on the job, including assaults by firearms, but they also count federal officers separately from local or state officers. I’m tracking only officers shot, and since my focus is on geography and population, it doesn’t matter what kind of department the officer works for. Unlike Gun Violence Archive, I track only felonious shootings; I do consult their database to cross reference what I find in each day’s news search.
Once I’ve found incidents to enter into my spreadsheet, I look up the nearest populated place to categorize it. I break out populations by zero to fewer than 11,000 residents, then 11,001 to fewer than 30,000 residents, and then everyplace else. If it fits one of my two (admittedly made-up, because there’s no template for this) categories, I then check maps to see if it’s actually rural and not a suburb adjacent to a large metro. The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently made this a little simpler with a new, more accurate definition of rural based on population density.
What Did I See This Year?
The same thing I’ve seen for several years running now: officers from small, rural and remote places are subject to a disproportionate level of violence. With last year’s numbers, I felt confident in rejecting coincidence. This year further solidifies the pattern.
2022 started out in a fairly encouraging manner, without a rural fatality by gunfire till February (although there were four vest saves in January alone). The casualties came in waves, from remote places with just a mile marker and a post office to small towns where people know their neighbors and take their safety for granted. The officers affected worked for sheriff’s offices, tribal departments, police departments, the U.S. Marshals Service, Border Patrol, state police agencies and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Criminals are the original equal-opportunity offenders.
By my count, there were 13 incidents nationwide in 2022 with three or more officers shot; four of those were in rural places or small towns. Only one of those four was in a place with a population count of more than a thousand residents, Lebanon City, Pennsylvania. These incidents alone accounted for 10 wounded officers, and five officers plus a K-9 killed in the line of duty. (One more incident I couldn’t figure out how to classify: a gun battle at sea that wounded multiple Customs and Border Protection agents and killed one. Clearly, the officers worked remotely and far from backup, but without a population center for comparison, it didn’t fit neatly into any category.)
By the Numbers
In the first two years I kept records, rural officers accounted for roughly a third of the total officers shot in the U.S., and a quarter of those killed by felonious gunfire. The 2021 numbers took a turn: rural officers accounted for a little more than a third of all officers shot, but fatalities jumped to nearly half. That was alarming but it’s only one year, and perhaps an anomaly.
Let’s look at 2022’s numbers (tinyurl.com/yn5wj64m) and see what insight another year can offer.
Officers shot nationwide in 2022:
- 335 officers were shot in 2022
- 56 (18%) died of their wounds
- 40 (12%) were saved by ballistic armor (vest/helmet)
Overall officers shot and fatalities decreased somewhat compared to 2021; armor saves increased — just a little, but we’ll take what we can get.
Officers shot in populations >11,000 to <30,000 in 2022:
- 26 officers, or 8% of the national total, were shot in 2022
- 4 (7% of the national total) died of their wounds
- 4 (10% of the national total) were saved by ballistic armor (vest/helmet)
The relatively small numbers seem to make sense: we’re looking at officers who by definition work in small towns. In all categories, the numbers in this population group decreased compared to 2021. Last year this group represented 12% of the officers shot nationwide, and 17% of the fatalities, compared with 7% this time around.
I’ll make the populations smaller yet again:
Officers shot in populations <11,000 in 2022:
- 93 officers (28% of the national total) were shot in 2022
- 21 (38% of the national total) died of their wounds
- 14 (35% of the national total) were saved by ballistic armor (vest/helmet)
And there it is, four years in a row now: the casualties decrease at first in the smaller populations, and then rocket back up in the smallest and most remote places. Despite lower overall numbers of officers shot in 2022 compared to 2021, the percentages represented by officers in the smallest places increased in each category.
Combine both categories of officers from small and rural places, and they constitute a little more than a third of all officers shot, but 45% of the officers killed by gunfire, down just barely from 47% in 2021 and up exponentially from the 2019 and 2020 numbers.
Why Does This Keep Happening?
I have no definitive answers and I realize the problem can’t be fixed without finding some, but I do have some ideas.
For one, most rural officers work alone, often far from backup. Perhaps that emboldens criminals when they might avoid attacking multiple officers. Take, for example, the murder of Wake County Deputy Ned Byrd, ambushed by a pair of brothers and left in a field to die. If he had a cover officer, would they still have opened fire? Even his K-9 was still locked in his vehicle; he wasn’t expecting trouble.
It was two hours before his fellow officers found him, opening two more potential hazards urban officers don’t face: a void where immediate tactical medical aid could be, and a golden hour long gone. A rural officer may well be hours rather than minutes from a trauma center, even with backup to help control bleeding and radio for an ambulance.
Are bad guys in the country more likely to have rifles and thereby defeat body armor? Deputy Byrd’s alleged murderers were poaching deer and carrying rifles. Rifles are gaining popularity even in urban crime, but the fact remains that they’re hard to hide in street clothing. In the country, rifles are as common as pickup trucks.
Are bad guys taking more headshots? Byrd, like many other officers who fell in 2022, was shot in the head. I don’t have the information to compare past years by geographic location, so I can’t begin to answer that. LEOKA tracks locations of officers’ wounds, but not locations of the shooting incidents themselves.
Last fall, when I visited with the host of the Two Cops One Donut podcast, Eric Lavigne, he asked a question that raised a thornier possibility: is the training rural cops are getting leaving them vulnerable? That idea will probably anger some readers but it’s worth investigating; we know there are disparities between the budgets, staffing and training opportunities available to large departments and those available to small ones. If those disparities are putting officers at risk, then they should be addressed, bruised egos be damned.
I keep hoping some professional will take an interest in my research project — I’m a writer, not a statistician. Ideally, I’d like the FBI to add location information to their LEOKA statistics.
I spoke with a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health about my project last summer, but so far none of her students have taken an interest in it. Another professor, who specializes in rural criminology at Southern Oregon University, has expressed interest and offered to help with aspects of record keeping and analysis. With her input, I’ve added a field for tracking suspect mental health status to my spreadsheet and I’m looking forward to her feedback when this year is complete. I also added a field for ambushes this year using the FBI definition. The National Fraternal Order of Police are already tracking how many ambushes happen and if they have the “when,” I could just add the “where.” In the meantime, I’ll give it a try myself.
When we observe National Police Week this year, I urge every reader — officer, sheriff, police chief, trainer, researcher — to look carefully at the numbers I’m tracking, and the questions they raise. Set aside the normalcy bias that allows decision-makers to say one more time, “It’s never happened here and therefore will not happen here.”
What we will not acknowledge cannot be changed. Start the change by recognizing the reality of the blood shed by the officers we honor, even — maybe especially — in the little places we’d like to think are sheltered from violence. Use these numbers for leverage when decisions are made about staffing, training, communications equipment and safety gear. If we won’t acknowledge the risks the officers face, and make sure they have a chance against them, then honoring their sacrifices with ceremony rings hollow. They deserve better than that.
About the Author
Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies — local, state and federal — from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.