We’re continuing to see stories alleging that police work is getting increasingly dangerous. I suspect we’ll see even more of this as the search for accused Pennsylvania cop killer Eric Frein continues, and then again as the year winds down. December usually brings a slew of stories about police officers killed over the last 12 months, and this year, unfortunately, we’ll see an increase in that figure over last year.
But as I’ve written at length (and generally in vain), it’s important to include context when reporting these figures. Policing has been getting safer for 20 years. In terms of raw number of deaths, 2013 was the safest year for cops since World War II. If we look at the rate of deaths, 2013 was the safest year for police in well over a century. At the current pace, we can expect to see a 17 percent increase in on the job law enforcement fatalities this year over last year. That would put the total number of police officers who die on the job this year at 117, making 2014 the second safest year for cops in terms of raw fatalities since 1959. It would also put 2014 as the safest year for fatality rates in over a century. You’re more likely to be murdered simply by living in about half of the largest cities in America than you are while working as a police officer.
Over at the Freeman, Daniel Bier has put together a couple graphs to illustrate all of this, using data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, the FBI, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
So why is policing getting safer? The drop in police fatalities is a trend that mirrors the more general fall in violent crime across the country over the same period. It seems likely that whatever caused one trend also caused the other, and criminologists are still arguing over what caused the crime drop. This is usually the part where advocates for more aggressive, militarized policing argue that what they advocate must be working. But that seems unlikely. Surveys have shown that 65 to 80 percent of SWAT raids are to serve warrants on people suspected of drug crimes. And drug crimes are the one class of crimes that haven’t dropped dramatically since the mid-1990s. Some have argued that better body armor for cops had something to do with it. There does seem to be some evidence for that. On the one hand, assaults on police officers are dropping too. (See Bier’s graph on that here.) So it isn’t just that cops and their gear are doing a better job deflecting attacks, it’s that fewer people are attacking cops in the first place. On the other hand, the drop in assaults isn’t nearly as steep as the drop in fatalities. So it seems safe to say that while attacks on cops are in decline, something seems to be protecting more cops from death and injury when assaults do happen. Body armor seems like a likely candidate.
Generally, though we’re just becoming a less violent society, though we also seem to have hard time accepting it. The point here is not to diminish the deaths of those officers who have been killed on the job. But some media outlets, police leaders, and law enforcement organizations continue to push the false narrative that policing is getting more dangerous, that cops are working in the equivalent of war zones, and so on. As I pointed out a couple of posts earlier this week, this almost certainly affects how police officers approach their jobs, and the way they interact with people day to day. A police officer who understands that his job is relatively safe and that America is getting safer is less likely to see threats were none exist, or to turn to lethal force when it isn’t merited. A cop who is constantly told that his job is dangerous and that every interaction with a citizen could be his last will naturally be more likely to reach for his weapon when it isn’t necessary.
These figures also affect public policy debates on issues like police militarization, police cameras, citizens recording cops, gun control, sentencing, drug laws, and a host of other criminal justice matters. These aren’t my positions, but it very well could be that we do need more police militarization, more gun control, longer prison sentences, and tougher drug laws. But we should be having those discussions based on reality-based understanding of the dangers of police work, not a narrative driven by fear and anecdotes.