Many Ways to Die

Many Ways to Die

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

It may sound like a James Bond movie title, but it is a reality faced by every police officer in America. With 360 law enforcement deaths as of this writing in 2021, by year’s end, we will have seen a particularly deadly year for our officers.

The average citizen, watcher of TV and movies, may assume that most deaths are from bullets flying in dramatic gunfights. Few of the officers were engaged in protracted gun battles, but the deaths recorded by the Officer Down Memorial Page (, 49 were from gunfire, ranking as the most common type of duty-related death other than COVID-19.

Alarmingly, ambush murders have been on a steady increase. Of the 49 gunfire deaths, at least ten could be considered ambush murders. According to a fact sheet developed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), there are two types of ambush attacks. One is the entrapment ambush that is premeditated and officers are lured into a location to execute an attack. These kinds of killers may also stalk officers to find them at predictable locations such as their homes or police station.

An example is this month’s murder of Officer Dylan Harrison of the Alamo, Georgia police department. Although a four-year veteran as a police officer, Harrison was working his first shift at the Alamo Police Department. At 1:00 in the morning, he was outside the police station when attacked and shot to death. His killer fled and was apprehended the next day.

The second type of ambush described in the IACP document is the spontaneous type. This is an unprovoked attack without any long-term planning. As a crime of opportunity, the offender makes the decision at the approach of the officer, murdering in a surprise and unprovoked attack.

An example is Harris County Deputy Constable Kareem Atkins of Houston. Atkins responded with other officers to a report of a robbery in the parking lot of a business he was watching. As the officers were taking the robbery suspect into custody, another man opened fire from behind them with a rifle. The two other officers with Atkins were also wounded as Atkins was fatally wounded with a bullet to the head.

With a nod to those demanding diversity in law enforcement, the honor roll of the dead includes men and women, officers of all races, and represent a variety of agencies from federal, state, local, and specialty agencies like conservation police.

Four officers were shot and killed while responding to check on persons in well-being checks and suicidal subjects. Nine officers died when shot while performing traffic stops. Three were killed by gunfire on domestic violence calls. Four were murdered during barricaded suspect events. Six were murdered by gunmen while serving arrest or search warrants. Four others were shot to death during the investigation of disturbance or suspicious person calls.

All of these firearms deaths were during what every officer would call a routine matter. Even service calls, in addition to calls to check on a person’s well-being, can be deadly. Two officers were shot dead handling a dog call, one while assisting a motorist, and one while investigating a traffic crash.

Bullets are not the only life-ending means for our officers. There was one stabbing death. Five officers were beaten to death during assaults. Three drowned. Two died during training accidents. Vehicles were the mechanism of death for a dozen officers killed by drivers, an additional 16 died when the killer used a vehicle as a weapon, and 21 died during a pursuit or other vehicle crash. In addition to the 231 officers who succumbed to COVID from duty-related exposure, 17 died from duty-related medical emergencies of which 15 were heart attacks.

The ticking time bomb of duty-related injures led to the delayed deaths of 3 officers whose line of duty sacrifice began years ago and who finally succumbed in 2021.

There is a historical myth about a man named Damocles who desired to be a king. When his wish was granted, he discovered that the throne was beneath a sword that hung above his head by a single thread. His time of privilege and service thus existed beneath the potential imminence of death. So live our police officers, always in the shadow of their final shift.