Attacks on Police: Common Factors Among Assailants

When the FBI released “The Assailant Study – Mindsets and Behaviors” last month, most of the coverage focused on the study’s findings that “departments—and individual officers—have increasingly made the conscious decision to stop engaging in proactive policing.” This finding was supported by a recent Pew Research Center Report, which was based upon the results of a national survey of nearly 8,000 officers from larger departments. The survey revealed that 72% of officers “have become less willing to stop and question people who seem suspicious.”

While the issue of “depolicing” is an important one, there’s another reason to scour this report. The FBI set out to accomplish two objectives with this study:

1. Identify mindsets and characteristics in common with suspects who make attacks on police—which was done through statistical analysis of 50 incidents in 2016 in which law enforcement officers were attacked.

2. Identify contributing factors that had the greatest impact on the assailants’ mindsets and actions—which was done through interviews with law enforcement command staff and officers from 13 departments that experienced an officer LODD in 2016.

While illuminating, the interviews the FBI conducted to achieve its second objective are subjective, and they were the basis of the report’s conclusions on depolicing. Experiencing a line-of-duty death is traumatic for any department, and you could argue the experience colors the opinions of those interviewed. Again, this is not to diminish their insights; it’s simply pointing out the limitations of the research.

What isn’t as debatable, however, is the analysis the FBI performed on the 50 incidents involving attacks on police. That analysis reveals some excellent points to reinforce what we know about people who attack and kill police. So let’s take a closer look at three factors the FBI report reveals about police officer assailants.

1. There’s a good chance you’ll know him.

OK, that’s a bit overstated. But it IS likely that the assailant will be known to officers within your department or another nearby agency. According to the study, 86 percent of the assailants had prior criminal histories, and 56 percent were known to the local police or sheriff’s office.

And yes, we mean “him”—all of the assailants in the studied attacks on police were male, between the ages of 14 and 68 years old.

2. They are affected by drugs, alcohol and/or mental illness.

This is certainly not news to most officers, but the FBI study provides some good statistics to illustrate the type of suspect officers must be prepared to deal with. Of the assailants involved in these incidents, 60 percent had a history of drug use; 32 percent were under the influence at the time of the incident. When the researchers broke the findings down further, they discovered that more than 70 percent of the assailants who ambushed police officers were under the influence of narcotics at the time of the incident or had a history of drug use.

As is often the case, mental illness and drug use went hand in hand. In half of the cases where assailants were reported (anecdotally) to have mental illness, the assailant was also under the influence at the time of the incident.

By now we’ve come to accept that police officers are often ad hoc mental health providers, but this study underscores the dangers involved with such a trend. Although the vast majority of people with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else, police encounters with the mentally ill are fraught with risk. Many people with mental illness self-medicate, and the combination can change the dynamics of a situation considerably.

This was backed up in the FBI’s interviews with officers and command staff. They “noted an increase in the number of subjects using drugs and being in a drug-induced psychosis when contacted by police. Many law enforcement personnel are seeing an ‘escalation towards violence’ by those who abuse drugs.” Even in someone not affected by mental illness, alcohol and drugs impact decision-making, and can cause someone who would have been compliant when sober to flee or attack.

3. If they’re politically motivated, there may be warning signs. But if they are simply desperate to avoid incarceration, that’s not as likely.

The FBI study found that the assailants’ motivations in committing attacks on police fell into two categories: they either expressed a desire to kill law enforcement for social/political reasons or they were desperate to avoid incarceration.

Those who were motivated by political reasons or a hatred of law enforcement were more likely to broadcast their intentions ahead of the attack. The report notes: “The assailants in this category posted their beliefs on social media and/or informed their friends and family of their intentions prior to ambushing or initiating violence against law enforcement … they intended to kill a police officer or that they wanted to ‘shoot it out with police.’”

Those who attacked out of a desire to avoid incarceration were less likely to broadcast intent ahead of time. Only about 25 percent of the assailants “expressed on social media or to friends and family that they would do anything not to go back to jail.”

That said, a suspect who flees is projecting a warning sign too, albeit in the moment rather than days or weeks in advance. Suspects who flee clearly broadcast their willingness to escalate the encounter. In approximately 40 percent of the incidents involving assailants whose main motivation was to avoid incarceration, the assailant fled before turning and shooting at the officers. The report notes, “Law enforcement personnel described the circumstances that led to these foot chases, and they ranged from the officer verbally identifying the assailant, consensual contact, attempting to arrest, and serving a warrant. In all of the cases, it was clear to the law enforcement officials that the assailants were attempting to avoid being taken into custody.”

We know that foot pursuits are an extremely high-risk endeavor. The results of this study hint at what is going through the minds of those who choose to run from officers, and what they may be prepared to do if officers give chase.

Like any study, this one has limitations, not the least being that 2016 saw an increase in ambushes of officers and stories of police use of force continued to dominate the headlines. We must be cautious in extrapolating the results of one study to characterize all assailants. But the applied with the proper caution, this study can provide valuable insight into the factors that unite assailants—and therefore how officers can prepare. Remember: If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.

Shannon Pieper

SHANNON PIEPER is senior director of Marketing Content for Lexipol and former editorial director for PennWell Public Safety, publisher of FireRescue magazine and Law Officer magazine.

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