Fatal heart attacks among law enforcement officers have been quietly mounting through the first half of this year, with most striking victims younger than 50, according to fatality data compiled by two police groups.
So far this year, nine of the 57 officer deaths have been attributed to heart attacks, drawing new attention away from the most volatile and traditional causes — guns and vehicle accidents.
Overall, officer deaths are up slightly — 4% — this year, while firearm deaths are down 10% and fatal traffic incidents are down 12%, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and Officer Down, the groups that most closely track police fatalities.
The nine heart attack victims so far this year, however, represent three more than in all of last year combined, according to the NLEOMF.
From year to year, the causes of line-of-duty deaths can swing indiscriminately, but authorities are expressing serious concern about the string of heart attack deaths so far this year.
“The number does look dramatic,” said Bart Johnson, executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “This has been on our radar screen for a while now.”
Johnson said the IACP, the largest association of police executives, has been meeting in recent months with representatives of health care company Johnson & Johnson. The meetings, he said, are aimed at developing a more strategic approach to officer wellness as part of the association’s Center for Officer Safety and Wellness, which was created last year.
“We’re looking at the full spectrum of a police officer’s life cycle,” he said.
The effort comes as medical and occupational health journals have been publishing research on the heightened risk factors associated with law enforcement jobs. Last year, an article in the medical journal Cardiology in Review concluded that the common risk factors — hypertension, obesity, smoking, sedentary lifestyles and sudden physical stress— for officers “often exceeds that found in the civilian population.”
In March, the National Occupational Research Agenda, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, listed cardiovascular disease and its relationship to officer disability and death among its top priorities.
By 2016, according to NORA, federal health authorities hope to assess more fully the disease’s prevalence in the public safety work force.
“Americans aren’t as fit as they should be, and we, as a profession, are no exception,” said Arlington County, Va., police Capt. Adrienne Quigley, who has researched the issue. “It’s a problem… but it’s not the cool thing to talk about.”
Although many law enforcement agencies require officers to meet certain fitness standards prior to employment, Johnson and Quigley said few departments require officers to maintain those standards as conditions of their continuing employment.
“There really is no follow-up,” Johnson said.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the recent deaths, authorities said, are that at least five of the nine victims were younger than 50 at the time they died.
The youngest, 26-year-old federal corrections officer Brandon Kountz, died while responding to an alarm inside a Beaumont, Texas, prison.
At least eight of the nine victims were engaged in some physical activity, either training or a police operation, when they were stricken.
Two, including St. Paul, Minn., police Officer Josh Lynbaugh, 30, were pursuing suspects on foot.
The victims’ physical conditions prior to death were not included in the fatality data, but at least one — Anthony Barfield — had complained of feeling ill just before his April 9 collapse as he responded to a domestic disturbance call in Barwick, Ga.
Barfield’s death at age 47 was especially tragic for the tiny southwest Georgia town where he served as the police chief and the community’s only full-time officer.
Barwick City Councilman Dale Hicks described the chief as a “beloved” figure in the community where “everybody not only knows everybody else’s name but we even know the name of your cat.”
“He was probably a little overweight, but he appeared to be in reasonably good shape,” Hicks said.
While he complained of feeling ill when the disturbance call came in, “it’s something you wouldn’t generally associate it with a heart condition.”
“He was urged to go home,” Hicks said. “But he said, ‘No, I’ll stick it out.’ ”
While the call did not involve a physical struggle, the councilman said Barfield asked local sheriff’s deputies, who responded to the call as back-up officers, to transport the suspect for booking.
He collapsed at the scene soon after.
“It’s only been a couple months, but he’s sorely missed around here,” Hicks said.