PolitiFact: Has coronavirus killed more cops than all other causes?

Two separate groups find that more law enforcement officers died from COVID-19 than all other causes, including gunfire and car accidents.
A Thurston County Sheriff's Deputy wears a mask as he stands near crime scene tape Sept. 3 in Lacey, Wash.
A Thurston County Sheriff's Deputy wears a mask as he stands near crime scene tape Sept. 3 in Lacey, Wash. [ TED S. WARREN | AP ]
Published Sept. 6, 2020

At the Republican National Convention, President Donald Trump cast himself as a stalwart friend of police and an effective leader in the fight against COVID-19.

In a speech in Pittsburgh, Democratic nominee Joe Biden said Trump was neither.

“Do you feel safer under Donald Trump?” Biden asked Aug. 31. “More cops have died from COVID this year than have been killed on patrol.”

That stat raised eyebrows, and we checked to see if it was true. Biden didn’t say exactly what the best data show, but the comparison is largely accurate.

Tallies of deaths by two national groups show that COVID-19 has killed more law enforcement officers than gunfire and other hazards of the job in 2020. The caveat to Biden’s claim is there is some statistical fuzziness regarding who is a cop and what it means to be on patrol.

Roughly one-third of these tallies include corrections and detention center officers who work inside institutions where the virus can spread more readily. Some Customs and Border Protection field officers and other first responders are also included. While these occupations are counted as part of law enforcement, they might not come to mind as the cops that Biden referred to.

The COVID-19 death toll is still the greatest single cause of death when those occupations are excluded.

What the broad numbers show

The National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund lists 101 dead officers from COVID-19 compared with 87 from anything else, including gunfire, car accidents or other causes. If it weren’t for COVID-19, officer deaths were on track to be lower this year than last.

The National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund says on its website that before it adds an officer to its list of deaths due to the virus, “substantive evidence will be required to show the death was more than likely due to the direct and proximate result of” exposure in the line of duty.

Another source, the Officer Down Memorial Page, shows 101 deaths from COVID-19 and 81 deaths from all other causes. Communications director Jessica Rushing said the count is updated daily.

(The Fraternal Order of Police has tracked 208 deaths from COVID-19, but not fatalities from other causes. It notes that it doesn’t verify the COVID-19 deaths.)

According to Rushing’s group, gunfire is the second most common cause of death.

By a factor of three, COVID-19 is the leading cause of death for the broad group of officers.

That has as much to do with the pattern of police fatalities as it does with the virus, said Rutgers criminologist Frank Edwards. Deaths in the line of duty due to any cause tend to average about eight each month.

FBI data on deaths in the line of duty further back this point. The FBI numbers distinguish between accidental and felonious deaths of officers in the community. They show that in a typical month, criminal acts kill less than five officers a month.

Excluding the corrections and detention officers, the toll from COVID-19 remains at about 70 in the Officer Down count — still double the loss of life due to gunfire, but not higher than the sum of other causes of death.

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Our ruling

Biden said that more cops have died from COVID-19 than while on patrol.

COVID-19 by itself has killed more law enforcement officers than all other causes combined, according to two groups that track these numbers.

No matter how we parsed the data — by excluding correctional and detention center officers, or by focusing on felonious deaths to officers that could be considered “on patrol” — COVID-19 posed the greatest single threat to officers’ lives.

We rate this claim Mostly True.

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