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President Donald Trump lamented the number of assaults on police officers at a ceremony honoring fallen officers on Capitol Hill.
"In 2016, an officer was assaulted in America on an average of every 10 minutes, can you believe that?" Trump said on May 15, 2018. "It's outrageous, and it’s unacceptable. We must end the attacks on our police, and we must end them right now. We believe criminals who kill our police should get the death penalty. Bring it forth."
Is that true?
Trump’s numbers are based on data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But factoring in the growing population of Americans and police shows the rate isn’t as constant as Trump made it sound.
The FBI reported that 57,180 officers were victims of line-of-duty assaults in 2016.
With 525,600 minutes in a year, that breaks down to an assault every 9.19 minutes. Adjusting for the 10 percent of agencies that didn’t report any data, that’s an officer assaulted every 10.3 minutes.
Some of the actions that legally count as an assault may not have resulted in pain inflicted on the officer, such as a drunk person shoving an officer. A shove carries the same weight as a stabbing by this measure.
Of the 57,180 officers who were victims of assault, 28.9 percent (or 16,535 officers) sustained injuries.
About three-quarters of the assaults did not involve a weapon other than hands, fists, or feet. Firearms were used in 4.2 percent of incidents and knives in 1.9 percent, according to the FBI.
The rate of police deaths is much lower. In 2016, 52 law enforcement officers died in accidents and 66 were deliberately killed, according to the FBI. Those numbers have been decreasing over the past few decades.
Trump called out one kind of assault in particular during his speech: "One of the most alarming crimes taking place against our police are ambush attacks. Think of that! Ambush attacks!"
But ambush attacks are rare, according to Safiya Jafari Simmons, communications director at the Center for Policing Equity. Ambush attacks were responsible for 270 of the 57,180 officer assaults. Most assaults resulted from officers intervening in disturbances, effectuating arrests, or transporting prisoners.
Trump’s use of the rate of assaults per minute, known as the crime clock, isn’t a sound practice, said James Fox, Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University.
The statistic divides the number of minutes, not police officers, by attacks. But as the general and police populations grow, the clock still has the same number of minutes.
Also, Trump’s statistic isn’t an average of different regions but an aggregate of national assaults. The frequency of assault, then, would change depending on the area. A single city has fewer total police assaults than the country, but the clock has the same number of minutes; the frequency would be lower even in the cities with most assaults.
Dividing assaults by total police officers is more telling, Fox said. By that measure, on average, an officer has a 9.8 percent chance of being assaulted per year.
Trump said a police officer is assaulted every 10 minutes in 2016.
That math works out if you divide the number of minutes in a year by the FBI’s count of line-of-duty assaults.
There are a few points to remember about this particular statistic. This count doesn’t just isolate incidents where a wound was inflicted, such as a shooting and stabbing, so incidents such as shoving and kicking are also considered an assault. Also, a criminologist warned that the "crime clock" method does not really tell you that much, because it does not factor in the growing U.S. and police populations.
Trump's statement is accurate but requires additional context. We rate it Mostly True.
Youtube.com, President Trump's Remarks At National Peace Officers Memorial Service, May 15, 2018
Email interview with Steven Cheung, White House spokesman, May 15, 2018
FBI.gov, Press release, Oct. 16, 2017
UCR.FBI.gov, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 2016
Nleomf.org, Law Enforcement Facts
Phone interview with James Fox, Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University, May 15, 2018
Email interview with Adam Lankford, professor of criminology and criminal justice at The University of Alabama, May 15, 2018
Email interview with Safiya Jafari Simmons, communications director at the Center for Policing Equity, May 15, 2018
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