COVID-19 caused 2021 to be the deadliest year for law enforcement nationwide in almost a century, according to new preliminary report from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
The report found 301 of the 458 officers killed in the line of duty last year died from the virus, increasing deaths from the virus by 65% over 2020. That made COVID-19 the leading cause of death for officers over anything else.
"I think the numbers are staggering when you look at 458 officers killed in the line of duty, 301 [of them] COVID fatalities," said Troy Anderson, executive director in the office of safety and wellness at NLEOMF. "There are a number of COVID deaths from law enforcement agencies around the country that have yet to be reported. And so, we are in-taking those on an almost daily basis."
NLEOMF does a yearly report on law enforcement deaths, and the 2021 report found COVID-19 to be the leading cause of death.
"The number, I think, was a shock to many, and I think sadly that number is going to continue to rise," said Anderson.
According to the preliminary report, Florida is among the top seven states with high officer deaths from COVID. The virus killed 43 out of 52 officers, affecting agencies like the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
"We lost a law enforcement officer who was only 32 years of age and in great physical shape. He was very healthy. He didn't have underlying issues and he died because of COVID," said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.
Sheriff Judd said deputies can’t shy away from that risk.
"We have to go forward and protect and save lives and serve people and get right down face to face with them. If someone with COVID has a sudden death event, we're down giving CPR directly to them because it's the right thing to do," said Judd, adding that the agency also has COVID protocols in place.
Some law enforcement industry leaders like Anderson said the report shows something has to change.
"It's not just the law enforcement community that should pause and look at these numbers. It should be society as a whole," Anderson said. "And as law enforcement administrators are looking at this, they should be stopping and saying, what can we do differently to bring these numbers in a different direction? Because right now they're going in the wrong direction."
Sheriff Judd said PCSO has vaccine stations set up for workers and vaccine information education within the office. Judd said he encourages deputies to talk to their doctors about the shot.
"I don't think as a government official, I've got a right to tell you how to manage your personal health," Judd said, "but I do strongly encourage the vaccine."