Ambush Killings of the Police, 1970–2018: A Longitudinal Examination of the “War on Cops” Debate

Date01 December 2020
Published date01 December 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Ambush Killings of
the Police, 1970–2018:
A Longitudinal
Examination of the
“War on Cops” Debate
Michael D. White
Over the last few years, there has been a series of high-profile, premeditated ambush
attacks on police, which has led some to conclude there is a “war on cops.”
Unfortunately, prior research has not examined the prevalence of police ambushes
over an extended period of time, and the most recent study only analyzed the
phenomenon through 2013. Moreover, the “war on cops” thesis implies a very
specific motivation for an ambush: hatred of police or desire to seek vengeance in
response to police killings of citizens. Prior research has not sufficiently explored the
motivations of ambush attacks, or whether recent trends in ambushes are linked to a
“war on cops” motive. I investigate ambush killings of police from 1970 to 2018 using
data from the Officer Down Memorial Page in an attempt to address these research
gaps. I apply a temporal coding scheme of when the attack occurred to isolate killings
of police that are consistent with the International Association of Chiefs of Police
definition of an ambush. Results from linear regression show that the annual rates of
ambush killings of police have declined by more than 90% since 1970. Although
ambushes spiked in 2016 and 2018 to the highest rates in 20 years, interrupted
time series analysis indicates no statistically significant increase post-2013. Spikes
have also occurred in nonambush killings since 2014. Police leaders and researchers
should monitor trends in ambush and nonambush killings of police, as the recent
spikes may presage the emergence of a chronic problem.
School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ, United States
Corresponding Author:
Michael D. White, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Arizona State University, 411 North
Central Avenue, Suite 600, Phoenix, AZ 85004, United States.
Police Quarterly
2020, Vol. 23(4) 451–471
!The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611120919441
ambush killings of police, war on cops, violence against police
Several decades of research has demonstrated the dangers inherent in police
work. Policing has the highest occupational rate of violent victimization
(Duhart, 2001; Fridell et al., 2009), and each year, approximately 10% of all
police off‌icers in the United States are assaulted on the job (Bierie, 2017).
Although the vast majority of police–citizen encounters do not involve violence
at all, the sheer volume of encounters, more than 50 million per year, means that
violence against police is a daily event. Indeed, data from the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI; 2010) indicate that off‌icers are assaulted in approximately
160 encounters per day.
The focus on violence against police has intensif‌ied since 2014. The increased
attention can be traced back to a series of controversial police killings of minor-
ity citizens (e.g., Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott), which led to public
protest, civil disorder, a national movement demanding police reform (https://, and strong anti-police sentiment (White et al., 2019). At
the same time, there has been a series of high-prof‌ile ambush attacks on police
off‌icers, most notably in Brooklyn (two off‌icers killed, December 2014), Dallas
(12 off‌icers shot, f‌ive off‌icers killed, July 2016), and Baton Rouge (three off‌icers
killed, July 2016). The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP;
2013) states an ambush attack on police is def‌ined by four characteristics: “an
element of surprise; concealment of the assailant, their intentions, or weapon;
suddenness of the attack; and a lack of provocation” (p. 3). Notably, it is often
diff‌icult to determine the motivation behind an ambush attack, and in fact,
motive is not an element of the IACP def‌inition of an ambush.
These recent ambush killings of off‌icers has led some police executives and
outside observers to claim there is a “war on cops” (Hattem, 2015; Mac Donald,
2016; Saf‌ir, 2015). Although results from recent studies show signif‌icant declines
in felonious killings of police since 1990 (Maguire et al., 2017; White et al.,
2019), data from the FBI indicate an increasing percentage of those deaths
are classif‌ied as ambush killings. From 1990 to 2012, the proportion of
ambush killings increased by 33% (IACP, 2013). In 2016, ambush attacks
against police reached a 10-year high (Ingraham, 2016).
However, research suggests that there are varied motivations behind attacks
on police, including ambushes, from revenge for a perceived transgression to
attacks that are designed to avoid arrest or facilitate escape (Breul & Keith,
2016; Kercher et al., 2013). Although the IACP (2013) def‌inition of ambush does
not include motive as a core element, they do identify two categories of
ambushes based on motive: (a) entrapment ambushes which are premeditated
452 Police Quarterly 23(4)

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