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2016 Could Be The Deadliest Year For Terror Attacks Targeting Police Since 1973

Even before the attacks on police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, this month, terrorists — including those who advocate political violence against the government — were increasingly targeting U.S. cops.

Seven people were killed — not including the attackers — in eight terrorist attacks targeting police officers in the U.S. between 2013 and 2015, according to the Global Terrorism Database.1 Before then, no one had been killed in the U.S. by terrorists targeting police since 1983, according to the analysts at the database, which is a University of Maryland-based project.2

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Much remains unknown about the Dallas and Baton Rouge shootings, but early reports suggest both could qualify as terrorism: Police investigators say the suspected shooters in both incidents were seeking to kill police officers, and social media accounts that were linked in media reports to the Baton Rouge suspect endorsed violence against the government.3 The Dallas shooter killed five police officers, and the Baton Rouge shooter killed three officers. Two other attacks earlier this year that each killed one officer could also qualify as terrorism.

This year already looks like it will be the deadliest for U.S. police officers targeted by terrorists since 1973, when 14 people died in attacks by terrorists targeting police. The deadliest day for police in U.S. history was Sept. 11, 2001, when 72 officers died in terrorist attacks that didn’t specifically target police.

The early 1970s were a dangerous time for police officers in the U.S. The GTD counts 73 attacks on officers in 1970, killing 15 people.4 It was the first year in the database, and the deadliest for U.S. cops from terrorism. Since then, the number of police officers who die of all causes on the job has declined sharply, though in 2014 and again this year, a significant proportion of officers who were murdered died in terrorist attacks.

The nature of the attackers has changed. Between 1970 and 1974, 28 of the 31 deadly attacks on police officers were carried out by black nationalist or black militant groups.5 All of the perpetrators in the 2013 and 2014 attacks, by contrast, were apparently unaffiliated with specific groups; they were motivated by either anti-government sentiment or their view that U.S. policing is racist. Similar sentiments may have motivated the suspects in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

Globally, police officers often are in terrorists’ line of fire, sometimes because they stand between terrorists and their target and sometimes because they are the target themselves. “Terror groups view the police officers as instrumentalities of the government and distinct tools of the group’s oppressors,” wrote Dean Alexander, director of Western Illinois University’s Homeland Security Research Program, in a 2007 article. “The police officers’ role in combating terrorism is critical, as they, too, are victims of such violence as well as the protectors of others.”

Alexander said in an interview Monday that the increased availability of video evidence of police violence, among other factors, may have helped fuel the increase in U.S. attacks. “You just need a couple of different elements and people that feel aggrieved and feel that there are no other options and feel that violence is an appropriate option,” Alexander said. “The majority of people who have those ideologies won’t act on them, but some do.”

Terrorism kills far more people outside the U.S. than inside it — and that goes for civilians, soldiers and police officers. Between 2012 and 2015, terrorists killed nearly 15,000 people worldwide in attacks targeting police.

Footnotes

  1. The GTD specifies how many people died in the attack and how many of them were perpetrators, when available. It doesn’t specify how many people killed were police officers. We reviewed the GTD’s descriptions of the attacks targeting police officers between 2013 and 2015. Six of the seven people killed were themselves officers; the seventh was a bystander in a 2014 Las Vegas attack.

  2. There was one deadly attack by a Puerto Rican independence group in Puerto Rico in 1986.

  3. Global Terrorism Database analysts won’t determine which 2016 attacks qualify as terrorism until next year. But based on the classification of earlier attacks, Dallas and Baton Rouge would probably qualify as terrorism. The GTD requires that an attack meet three criteria: (1) that it is intended to achieve a “political, economic, religious or social goal”; (2) that it is intended to deliver a message to people other than its victims; and (3) that it occurs “outside the context of legitimate warfare activities.”

  4. One of the 1970 attacks targeting police officers killed three officers and four civilians; for consistency we are counting all seven people killed.

  5. The three exceptions were carried out by the Chicano Liberation Front, the Weather Underground and an unknown group.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

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