updated 12/29/2008 12:02:02 AM ET 2008-12-29T05:02:02

Fewer police officers died in the line of duty in 2008 compared to last year, reflecting better training and tactics, two law enforcement support groups reported Sunday.

The findings reversed the trend for 2007 when there was a spike in police deaths, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and another group, Concerns of Police Survivors.

The groups reported fatalities through Sunday.

Officer deaths this year totaled 140, compared to 181 in 2007.

Lowest total since 1965
Gunfire deaths dropped to 41 officers this year, compared to 68 in 2007. The 2008 number represented the lowest total since 1956 — when there were 35 — and was far below the peak of 156 officers killed by gunfire in 1973.

Traffic-related deaths also declined, with 71 officers killed this year, compared to 83 in 2007. It was the 11th consecutive year that more officers were killed in traffic incidents than from any other cause.

More than 61 percent of this year's fatalities involved accidents and 39 percent resulted from criminal acts.

The only downside was deaths of women officers: 15 in 2008 compared to 6 a year ago. More women officers than before are in harm's way, the groups said, because they're taking on the same dangerous assignments as men.

Craig Floyd, chairman of the Memorial Fund, said in an interview that officers are getting better training and equipment.

More than 70 percent of policemen use bullet-resistant vests compared to fewer than half a decade ago, he said.

And officers are making better use of Taser stun guns and other non-lethal weapons that keep them a safe distance from violent offenders, Floyd said.

High-speed and defensive driving techniques
To avoid traffic deaths, officers are better trained in high-speed and defensive driving techniques. Police vehicles now have better safety equipment, including side air bags and a substance installed near the gas tank to suppress fire when the vehicle is struck.

The states with the most deaths were Texas with 14, followed by California with 12, then Florida and Pennsylvania with eight apiece,

Other factors cited by Floyd for the reduction in police fatalities:

  • A record 2.3 million adult criminals behind bars, according to a study released earlier this year by the Pew Center on the States.
  • A 2007 violent crime rate that held steady at the 2005 level, according to the Justice Department.

The Memorial Fund honors law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty and is in charge of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington.

Concerns of Police Survivors provides support and counseling to surviving family members of officers killed in the line of duty.

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