Despite the absence of evidence that the death penalty protects police or promotes public safety, lawmakers in several states that have abolished capital punishment have introduced bills to reinstate capital punishment for the murders of police officers.

An attempt during the 2022 legislative session in Virginia to reinstate the death penalty for killings of police officers failed in committee. The state abolished the death penalty in February 2021, and a bill to narrowly reinstate the state’s death penalty for murders of law enforcement officers was voted down in a 9-6 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 7, 2022. A companion bill died without consideration in a House committee.

Several legislators in Illinois have introduced bills that would reinstate the death penalty for the killings of police officers, firefighters, and other first responders in response to what they characterized as a spate of killings of police officers. State Senator Darren Bailey, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor against incumbent Democrat JB Pritzer, introduced his bill on January 21, 2022. In rhetoric reminiscent of the politicization of crime in the 1980s and 1990s, Bailey claimed that “[l]aw enforcement is under attack and it’s because here in Illinois, Springfield has failed them. … We have to make it clear we have our officers’ backs. An attack against our officers is an assault against the safety and security of our communities,” he said.

Asserting that “we’ve had not only an increase in crime but an increase in killing of cops in the state of Illinois,” State Representative Dave Severin introduced a House version of the bill on January 24, 2022. “We have got to make a change in the state of Illinois for it to be safer for correctional officers, for police officers and this killing has got to stop,” Severin said.

Former Illinois Innocence Project Director John Hanlon took issue with the legislators’ assertions. “The statistics are really clear: the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent,” he said. “Deterrence is a logical thought process,” Hanlon, who represented several Illinois death-row prisoners on appeal, said. “[V]ery often, crimes at this level — there’s not a whole lot of logical thinking going on. So deterrence doesn’t occur — it doesn’t apply.”

A 2017 Death Penalty Information Center analysis of thirty years of FBI data on murders in the United States and murders of law enforcement personnel killed in the line of duty found that the presence or absence of the death penalty had no effect on either murder rates generally or the rates at which law enforcement officers were killed. In a podcast describing the findings, DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham explained, “There’s no evidence that the death penalty deters murder and there’s no evidence that it protects the police.” The death penalty, Dunham said, “makes no measurable contribution” to police safety.

The DPIC Homicide Study

DPIC looked at the murder data through the lenses of states that had the death penalty throughout the study period, states that had long abolished the death penalty, and “transitional” states that recently abolished the death penalty. The data showed that police officers were killed in the line of duty at a rate that was 1.37 times higher in states that had the death penalty than in states that had long abolished the death penalty. The states in which police were killed at the highest rates were disproportionately death penalty states. (Click to enlarge graphic.) In every state, killings of police officers represented a tiny percentage of all murders and, contrary to what one would expect if the death penalty made police safer, they accounted for virtually the same percentage of murders (0.33%) in both states with the death penalty and long-time abolitionist states. They accounted for a much smaller percentage of murders (0.20%) in the transitional states that had most recently abolished the death penalty.

The study’s Illinois data also found that Illinois has had periodic spikes in murders of police officers, but having the death penalty for police killings did nothing to prevent them. (See graphic.) Killings of police officers declined in the years immediately after the state abolished capital punishment, although DPIC concluded that, too, had nothing to do with the death penalty.

The DPIC study also found that executions had no observable impact on officer safety. Eight of the 9 safest states for law enforcement — Vermont, Iowa, Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and Massachusetts — did not have or had recently abolished the death penalty. The ninth, Wyoming, had no one on death row and had not carried out any executions in 30 years.


Mark Bowes, Democrats on Senate Judiciary Committee stop bill that would rein­state death penal­ty for killing police offi­cers, Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 8, 2022; Ben Szalinski, Lawmakers mull restor­ing death penal­ty to deter crime, but crit­ics call it a proven fail­ure’, The Daily Line, February 14, 2022; Zach Roth, Ill. law­mak­ers seek return of death penal­ty for cop killers, Effingham Daily News, January 29, 2022; Colin Baillie, Ill. State Rep. files bill to rein­state death penal­ty for killing a police offi­cer, KFVS12, January 262022.

Read DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham’s Twitter threads on January 26, 2022 and February 9, 2022 on the death penal­ty and police safety.