The victims of the tragic and horrific mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut included six school employees who died trying to save the lives of their students. Sadly, this horrible crime underscores the fact that the homicide rate for government employees has risen in the past few years. Government employees now face a higher risk of being murdered on the job than private sector workers.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains detailed records on workplace fatalities, including homicides, in their Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. While the data for 2011 are still preliminary (and subject to revision in 2013), 458 workers were homicide victims in the workplace in 2011; 368 of the victims worked in the private sector and 90 were government employees. This represents a departure from as recently as 2003 when 561 private sector workers and 71 government workers were homicide victims. Between 2003 and 2011:
- Homicides in private sector workplaces have decreased by 26%
- Homicides of government employees have increased by 27%
Government employees were about 20% of homicide victims in the workplace in 2011 despite the fact that they represent only about 15% of total employment (with private sector wage and salary workers and the self-employed accounting for the remaining 85%). This means that the homicide rate per employee is now 39% higher for government workers than it is for private sector workers.
One reason for the high homicide rate for government workers is that the public sector includes many high risk occupations in law enforcement. Over the past decade 70% of the homicides of government workers were to police, law enforcement and correctional institution employees. Even excluding these high risk occupations over the past decade the workplace homicide rate increased in the government sector while it has declined in the private sector.
The homicide rate in private sector workplaces is less than one-third of the rate in 1992 (the first year the BLS published these data). Government workplaces are also safer than they were in 1992; the homicide rates for government workers in 2011 was 24% lower than in 1992. It is noteworthy, however, that all of the declines in workplace violence in the government sector occurred between 1992 and 1999.
Private sector employers have substantially reduced the homicide rate in their businesses over the past two decades. In contrast there has been no increase in workplace safety in the public sector over the past decade. While private sector workplaces are the safest they have been since the BLS began collecting these data 20 years ago, many public sector workers in the front lines of law enforcement face a high risk of workplace violence. A troubling trend over the past decade is that the homicide rate for government workers, outside of law enforcement, has not declined as it has in the private sector.
Note: I use the Current Population Survey to measure annual employment for government workers, private sector wage and salary workers, and self-employed individuals and use these figures to construct the homicide rates per employee in the chart above. I have excluded the homicides on 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 from the chart.