WASHINGTON — Intervening in a family fight is a relatively safe task for a police officer, and statistics suggesting that it is a high-risk assignment are misleading, the federal government said Sunday.
The number of police deaths connected with domestic disturbances is less than a third of what is commonly cited by researchers and in police training materials, the National Institute of Justice concluded in a new report.
From 1972 to 1984, there were 69 officers killed in domestic disturbances, which is one of the most frequent of all police street assignments. A total of 210 officers died in robberies, the most dangerous of all police activities. Police handle four to 10 times as many domestic disturbances as they do robbery calls.
The report says the erroneous notion of danger stemmed from an assumption that the "disturbance" category of FBI statistics contained only domestic problems, when it actually includes all disturbances--ranging from bar fights to gang brawls and all sorts of disorder short of a riot or civil unrest.
The FBI restructured the statistical category four years ago, to make the distinction.
As recently as last year, the report said, researchers were reporting that as many as 23% of officer deaths occurred in connection with domestic disturbances. The correct figure, the report concluded, is less than 6%.
"While there is a risk to officers in answering family violence calls, other police assignments are far more dangerous," said James K. Stewart, director of NIJ, a Justice Department agency.
The institute reviewed data from eight independent studies of assaults, injuries and deaths among law enforcement officers.
Six of the studies found that domestic disturbances had caused the least such incidents; the others found that such disturbances prompted the second-lowest number of them.
"Research and police training . . . have emphasized the danger in domestic disturbances," said the authors of the report, NIJ researchers Joel Garner and Elizabeth Clemmer. "If domestic disturbances do not generate exceptional danger to the police, managers can focus . . . attention on improving effectiveness of the police response to victim needs."
Figures Cited as Incorrect
The report noted that the California Penal Code incorrectly states that 23% of police deaths result from intervention in situations of violence in the home.
The new report says that a study done six years ago incorrectly concluded that more police officers died in answering family-disturbance calls than in any other type of call.
And the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police, according to the report, cautioned in 1976 that "intervening in wife assault cases is a formidable task. . . . Police officers must be aware of the danger involved."
Garner and Clemmer concluded that "future research ought to emphasize the lack of apparent danger to the police in domestic disturbances."