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Director’s Corner: Improved Officer Safety in 2017 — and Beyond


American law enforcement officers put their lives on the line to keep their communities safe, and sometimes they pay the ultimate price. Every year, officers are killed in the line of duty. 2017 saw a decrease of more than 10 percent in line-of-duty deaths, from 143 in 2016 to 128 last year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Although the year-to-year count hasn’t always declined, this follows an overall steady decline in officer fatalities since the Memorial Fund began tracking these deaths in the late 1970s.

Protecting law enforcement officers is one of the U.S. Department of Justice’s top priorities, and NIJ is committed to funding research that increases officer safety.

David Muhlhausen, Director

Although this decline in fatalities is heartening, every line-of-duty death is one too many. Protecting law enforcement officers is one of the U.S. Department of Justice’s top priorities, and NIJ is committed to funding research that increases officer safety. Along these lines, NIJ has done extensive work in traffic safety; body armor standards; and officer safety, health, and wellness. NIJ funds research with the goal of allowing us to better understand the risks that officers face, using data to understand how we can best keep officers safe, and improve the tools and equipment that help protect them. Moving forward, we will continue to invest in research projects to this end.

Traffic-Related Incidents and Roadside Safety

Traffic-related incidents killed 47 law enforcement officers in 2017, making them the leading cause of officer fatalities.

For over a decade, NIJ has taken a data-driven approach to improve traffic safety, funding evidence-based research projects to promote officer roadside safety. An NIJ grant to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) resulted in the 2009 report, Emergency Vehicle Visibility and Conspicuity Study (pdf, 45 pages),which put forward findings that have influenced lights and marking patterns on emergency vehicles, to increase officer roadside safety in the decade since. To continue this important work, NIJ funded researchers at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute to work with law enforcement agencies to further evaluate the effect of various vehicle lighting, marking, and painting schemes on officer roadside safety. NIJ will continue to fund similar research in an effort to further protect law enforcement officers in dangerous roadway and other traffic conditions.

Body Armor Standards

Officers also face extensive threat from firearms violence, which was the second leading cause of officer fatalities last year, leading to 44 deaths.

Officers wearing body armor are nearly 80 percent more likely to survive a gunshot to the torso than those not wearing armor. NIJ-funded research in the 1970s led to the development of modern police body armor, and NIJ has set ballistic-resistant body armor standards since 1972. We implemented a body armor testing program six years later, and last year reached the milestone of testing more than 1,000 unique models of body armor against the current version of the ballistic-resistant body armor standard, which we published in 2008.

The NIJ standard is the only nationally accepted standard for law enforcement and corrections officer body armor. We take this responsibility seriously. In 2017, we issued four advisory and safety notices regarding certain body armor models, removed two models from the compliance list, and suspended two additional models. Since NIJ introduced modern police body armor in the 1970s, conservative estimates suggest that this armor has saved more than 3,000 officer lives.

We continue to invest in our body armor standards and testing programs, and are always looking for opportunities to expand these programs in order to better protect officers. Last year, NIJ began collaborating with private sector standards development organizations to develop armor standards. We also expanded the number of items of equipment tested by allowing third party standards organizations to test armor to NIJ performance standards. Both of these strategies will speed the introduction of much-needed performance standards for law enforcement equipment, to the ultimate end of saving officer lives.

NIJ’s body armor research and standards-related work has historically focused on the vests officers wear in their day-to-day work. In recent years though, civil disturbance has become a pressing issue for American law enforcement. In May 2017 we convened a workshop of law enforcement representatives from agencies across the country to discuss the development of standards for the safety equipment used in responding to instances of civil disturbance.

Safety, Health, and Wellness Strategic Research Plan

NIJ is committed to thinking strategically about long-term efforts and research priorities to improve officer safety. In 2016, we released our Safety, Health, and Wellness Strategic Research Plan. This plan will guide our funding efforts in regard to safety, health, and wellness over five years, and includes objectives such as promoting vehicular and traffic safety for officers and developing policies, strategies, and technologies to promote safety in criminal justice interactions with the public. This plan is a foundational document that will guide NIJ’s investment in officer safety over the coming years.

NIJ awarded more than $10.7 million in 2017 to support new research on policing practices and policies and officer safety and wellness. We will continue to make protecting law enforcement a priority by allocating a similar amount in 2018 for research to better protect law enforcement. This funding will support research to improve officer safety, health, and wellness, with a focus on traffic fatalities, stress resiliency, and interaction with the mentally ill. It will also improve and expand our standards programs, to ensure the safety and effectiveness of equipment used by officers.

I am happy to see the decline in officer fatalities in 2017, and am proud of the work that NIJ does to improve safety for law enforcement officers. NIJ will continue to fund research to improve officer safety, and work to continue this trend in 2018 and beyond.