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Top Justice Department officials met here in Washington today to talk about an alarming increase in the number of law enforcement officers dying in the line of duty.

It's the second year in a row the rate of fatalities has risen sharply, and the federal government is asking what it can do to help.

Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Attorney General Eric Holder has attended memorial services for officers killed in the line of duty three times already this year.

Two deputy U.S. marshals were shot by fugitives they were trying to catch. Then an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was run off the road and ambushed in northern Mexico.

Holder's aides say making phone calls to the mothers of officers who died is the toughest part of his job.

At a meeting with police chiefs from Philadelphia, New York and Washington today, Holder said enough was enough.

ERIC HOLDER: These numbers are simply unacceptable. 2010 really marked the deadliest year for law enforcement in nearly two decades, and that's obviously very worrisome. But this year, we are unfortunately on track to exceed the numbers that we saw last year.

JOHNSON: A law enforcement clearing house says 49 federal, state and local officers have died so far in 2011. Almost half have been victims of gunfire.

Steve Groeninger works at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

STEVE GROENINGER: It's certainly a sad situation and a tragic one at that. Whether it's a trend I think it might be a little bit premature to say.

JOHNSON: Analysts said there's no single reason to explain why so many police officers and federal agents are dying on the job. But the Justice Department is stepping in to offer some help. Holder is directing all 93 top federal prosecutors to meet with police in their states.

HOLDER: It will be a priority for every United States attorney in this country to have that kind of interaction with their state and local counterparts to make sure that we are doing all that we can to keep law enforcement agents - keep them safe.

JOHNSON: Last year, the Justice Department created a grant program to train police to anticipate and survive a violent attack. They're asking Congress for about $3 million to expand next year.

Groeninger of the Law Enforcement Memorial says budget-minded governments need to be careful not to cut too much from police and fire departments.

GROENINGER: You know, our police and our fire and EMS, our first responders, we have to be sure we're giving them all the tools that we can so that they can do their jobs as effectively as possible.

JOHNSON: And to survive the dangers that go along with doing those jobs.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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