The “Ferguson effect,” you might remember, is a phenomenon law-and-order types have been throwing around in an effort to blame police brutality on protesters and public officials who actually try to hold bad cops accountable for an alleged increase in violence, both general violence and violence against police officers.
The problem is that there’s no real evidence to suggest it exists. As I and others pointed out in June, while there have been some increases in crime in a few cities, including Baltimore and St. Louis County, there’s just no empirical data to support the notion that we’re in the middle of some national crime wave. And while there was an increase in killings of police officers in 2014, that came after a year in which such killings were at a historic low. And in any case, the bulk of killings of police officers last year came before the Ferguson protests in August and well before the nationwide Eric Garner protests in December.
Now, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund has released its mid-year report on police officers’ deaths in 2015. Through the end of June, the number of officers killed by gunfire has dropped 25 percent from last year, from 24 to 18. Two of those incidents were accidental shootings (by other cops), so the number killed by hostile gunfire is 16. (As of today, the news is even better: Police deaths due to firearms through July 23 are down 30 percent from last year.)
That’s the same number of cops who have died on the job of a heart attack so far this year. The leading cause of deaths for cops this year has been traffic fatalities: Car accidents have claimed 30 police lives, an increase of 20 percent over last year.
Of course, cops aren’t just killed with guns. But the number of cops feloniously killed on the job is down, too. There have been 23 such deaths so far in 2015, down from 32 in 2014, a decrease of 28 percent. “Feloniously killed” doesn’t necessarily mean intentionally killed. For example, one officer was struck and killed by a motorist who was updating a social media page on his cellphone. That motorist was charged with manslaughter. That’s a felony, and it’s a tragedy for the police officer and his family. But his death was due to a careless driver, not someone acting out animosity toward the police.
Last month, my Post colleague Mark Berman noted that police seem most concerned about ambush-style attacks, and that there’s a perception that these are on the rise. There have been three such fatalities this year. That’s three too many, but it’s also a tiny number when compared to the millions of times police are called.
Similar to ambush attacks are the incidents in which a cop is shot and killed during a traffic stop. A few months ago, Leon Neyfakh wrote in Slate about the grim videos police officers are shown in training which depict officers gun downed during otherwise routine stops. Neyfakh writes:
These videos, most of them captured by dashboard cameras, have been watched by police officers across the country for years, and they are talked about with raw emotion on law enforcement message boards. For many officers, they represent a chilling reminder to never lose sight of the unpredictability they face on the street — and to resist any political pressure they might feel to forget their training in the face of danger.
The videos are also used as learning tools. In fact, while most of them are easily accessible on YouTube, if you know what you’re looking for, many officers first see them at the police academy, where instructors use the videos as a powerful audio-visual aid to illustrate how quickly a seemingly innocuous situation — a routine traffic stop, for instance — can turn violent, and what can happen if an officer doesn’t follow standard operating procedure, or, more specifically, if he is too reluctant to fire his weapon.
Neyfakh writes in the piece that after watching the videos, he too came away with a greater appreciation of the dangers cops face, and even found himself rethinking his praise for an officer who in a widely covered incident had managed to subdue a potentially dangerous suspect without shooting him.
But these incidents are extremely rare. Out of tens of millions of traffic stops in the first half of 2015, three officers were shot — two during the same incident. (There was another such fatality this week.) In the Slate piece, one officer tells Neyfakh that “98 percent” of traffic stops don’t result in gunfire. But it’s quite a bit less frequent than even that. It’s literally less than a one in a million. (As I explained in a previous post, this was true even in the 1990s when violent crime was a lot more common.)
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with training cops to be prepared. But it isn’t difficult to see how being incessantly shown these videos and constantly told that every traffic stop could potentially be their last could cause some cops to approach interactions with motorists not just with caution and trepidation, but with fear, some irritability, and a mindset that makes them more likely to see benign actions as threats and innocent actions as furtive and to escalate rather than look for ways to resolve disputes without force. All of that could arguably be justified if every stop really did carry a significant risk of death for the officer.
But the numbers just don’t back this up. A typical officer on a typical stop is far more likely to die of a heart attack than to be shot by someone inside that car.
It’s important to note here that we’re also talking about very small numbers overall. Police officer deaths have been in such rapid decline since the 1990s that when taken as percentages, even statistical noise in the raw figures can look like a large swing one way or the other. And if we look at the rate of officer fatalities (as opposed to the raw data), the degree to which policing has gotten safer over the last 20 years is only magnified.
But the main takeaway from the first-half figures of 2015 is this: If we really were in the midst of a nationwide “Ferguson effect,” we’d expect to see attacks on police officers increasing. Instead, we’re seeing the opposite. That’s good news for cops. It’s bad news for people who want to blame protesters and reform advocates for the deaths of police officers.