Editor-in-Chief, Dr Guohua Li: Dr. Crifasi, congratulations on winning the Jess Kraus Award in Injury Epidemiology. Would you please briefly introduce yourself and your award-winning study?
Dr Cassandra K. Crifasi: I am an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Prior to joining the faculty in 2014, I earned an MPH in Environmental and Occupational Health from the Drexel Dornsife School of Public Health and my PhD in Health Policy and Management from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. My research interests include injury epidemiology and prevention, firearm policy, and the evaluation of policies that affect first responders and public safety. Much of the existing literature on assaults against law enforcement officers (LEOs) has focused on fatal assaults. But we know that for each fatality, there are many more assaults that result in injury but not death. The goal of this study was to examine differences in characteristics between fatal and nonfatal assaults to determine which characteristics increased the odds that an assault would be fatal.
EIC: Compared to other high-risk occupations such as flying, logging, and commercial fishing, how dangerous is law enforcement? What are the unique risks facing law enforcement officers?
LEOs are often interacting with suspects during or shortly after the commission of a crime, and suspects may assault LEOs to evade capture.
CKC: Law enforcement is among the most dangerous occupations. Not only do LEOs have a high overall occupational fatality rate, the rate of occupational homicide is among the highest in the United States. Seven of the ten National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s risk factors for workplace violence are pertinent to law enforcement: contact with public; mobile work place; working with unstable or volatile people; working alone or in small numbers; working late at night or during early morning hours; working in high crime areas; and working in community-based settings. LEOs are often interacting with suspects during or shortly after the commission of a crime, and suspects may assault LEOs to evade capture.
EIC: Tragedies related to law enforcement encounters have been in the news in recent years. Was there any specific factor that triggered you to pursue this study?
CKC: This work started as part of my doctoral dissertation. Having trained in occupational injury prevention, I looked for a problem that matched my interests but also had policy relevant solutions. I was interested in the safety of first responders generally; studying assaults against LEOs was a natural fit.
EIC: How did you acquire the data for your study? Would you please briefly describe the Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted database?
CKC: I submitted a request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to get the raw data on all fatal and nonfatal assaults against LEOs. The Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) database is generated by the FBI as part of the Uniform Crime Reporting program. The database includes de-identified data on every line-of-duty fatal assault, and non-fatal assaults committed with a firearm or knife/cutting instrument that results in an injury. It includes numerous variable about the encounter (e.g. traffic stop), assignment (e.g. two-officer vehicle), weapon used by the suspect, and LEO characteristics such as whether they were wearing body armor and the location of the primary wound. Fatal assault data collect began in 1980 and nonfatal assault data collection began in 1998.
EIC: What is the most striking finding from your study?
We were surprised to see such high odds for LEOs that were ambushed or experienced an unprovoked attack.
CKC: There is significant evidence in previous literature suggesting traffic stops are dangerous for LEOs, so we expected to see increased likelihood that an assault would result in a fatality when LEOs were conducting traffic stops. We also expected to see increased likelihood for assaults in situations where LEOs were responding to domestic disturbance calls, as those are regularly cited by law enforcement as dangerous situations. However, after controlling for other factors, those calls did not increase the odds of a fatality. At the same time, we were surprised to see such high odds for LEOs that were ambushed or experienced an unprovoked attack. At the time of the initial analysis, we had not yet witnessed the increasing ambush style attacks against LEOs. Looking at the results now, in the context of increases in these attacks, it makes sense that an ambush or unprovoked attack would result in higher likelihood of a fatality. When LEOs are caught off guard or have limited opportunity to defend themselves, they are more likely to be victims of homicide.
EIC: Any other important messages that may help save lives?
CKC: The topic of law enforcement and shootings has become incredibly politically charged. But ultimately, people want the same thing – less violence. This study, and others I have conducted, show that good policies can prevent gun violence directed at anyone, including law enforcement.
EIC: Your coauthors Dr. Keshia Pollack and Dr. Daniel Webster are well-known scholars in the field of injury and violence prevention. What did you learn from them during the course of the study?
This study, and others I have conducted, show that good policies can prevent gun violence directed at anyone, including law enforcement.
CKC: Dr. Keshia Pollack and Dr. Daniel Webster each have a unique way of thinking about a problem and bring complementary areas of expertise. They have had major influences over my work over the last several years, strengthening my research methodology and helping me to translate my work into meaningful policy to reduce violence. I find myself incredibly lucky to have them both as colleagues and mentors.
EIC: If you are continuing this line of inquiry, could you tell us what kind of questions you are tackling?
CKC: There are still many questions to answer about assaults against LEOs. We have conducted an evaluation of how some crime and gun policies affect LEO safety, but there are still many other policies that could affect the working environment of law enforcement. Some additional work focuses more specifically on LEOs killed with firearms and looks at the effectiveness of body armor to protect against different types of firearms used.
EIC: Thank you for your time. I look forward to reading your next paper in Injury Epidemiology.