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It's Arguably Never Been Safer to Be a Police Officer Despite Claims to the Contrary

by Brad R. Schlesinger, published

Back in April, The New York Times ran an article purporting what they considered to be a disturbing new trend of increases in the number of police officers being killed. The article points out how 72 police were killed in 2011, representing a 25 percent increase from the year before, and a 75 percent increase from 2008. An accompanying chart shows the number of officer deaths per year going back to 2000, and aside from 2001 (which includes those police officers killed during September 11) and 2011, the numbers are fairly consistent over that time.

While the Times even points out that the number of officer deaths declined sharply since the start of this year, the article still contains all sorts of suggestive quotes from law enforcement officials bemoaning how we haven’t seen violence aimed towards police like this in a long time, that each day a cop goes out on duty could be his last, and that every encounter could potentially be deadly.

At the time, I was slightly perplexed by the Times article. Just two days prior I read a post at the police watchdog blog Clark County Criminal Cops, detailing the 56 percent reduction in law enforcement killings so far from the previous year, as well as the lack of any kind of attention being paid to it– despite Attorney General Eric Holder publicly calling the number of cop deaths in 2011 simply unacceptable.

If there were an article being written in the national press regarding the number and trend of police deaths, I assumed it would surely point out this good news. Rather, it was merely mentioned in passing, and in a manner that paints an image of cops ducking whizzing bullets all day every day. To me, the chart provided by the Times and the 56 percent decline in officer deaths in 2012 seems like anything but an alarming trend.

This alleged ‘ugly’ trend becomes even less troubling when considering a larger sample size of statistics available on police fatalities. Over at the Huffington Post, Radley Balko digs through the numbers and finds no real reason to be alarmed:

'The truth is, the widely reported "war on cops" in 2010 and 2011 was exaggerated. Overall police fatalities did rise in 2010 and then again in 2011, but those figures are compared to 2009, which saw the fewest number of police fatalities since 1959. Generally speaking, police fatalities have been steadily declining since the early 1990s, along with the overall crime rate. And that's merely the raw number of deaths. Over the same period, the total number of police officers in America has also increased. So the drop in the fatality rate has been even more dramatic. The spikes in 2010 and 2011 appear to have been driven by a few anomalous months in which there were several incidents involving the deaths of multiple officers. In March 2011, for example, 24 cops died while on-duty, and in January 2010, the figure was 22. But those are the only two months in the last 42 when the number topped 20. The following months, those figures fell back to 11 and 15, respectively. Moreover, the rate of assaults against police officers also has been dropping since the late 1980s, so the drop in fatalities cannot be attributed only to better police armor, tactics, or weaponry. Criminals aren't merely killing police less, they're also attacking them less, which would seem to put the lie to the notion that citizens today respect police less, or that criminals have grown more emboldened. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, the homicide rate for police officers in 2010 (the last year for which data is available) was about 7.9 per 100,000 officers. That's about 60 percent higher than the overall homicide rate in America, which is 4.8. But it's lower than the homicide rates in many large cities, including Atlanta (17.3), Boston (11.3), Dallas (11.3), Kansas City (21.1), Nashville (8.9), Pittsburgh (17.3), St. Louis (40.5), or Tulsa (13.7). In fact, of the 74 U.S. cities with populations of 250,000 or more, 36 have murder rates higher than that of police in America. It's more likely to be murdered just by living in these cities than the average police officer is to be murdered on the job. The job of police officer also isn't anywhere near the most dangerous job in America. If we include traffic fatalities, the job of police officer will in some years rank among the 10 most dangerous in America (PDF). But take away car accidents, and it doesn't come close. Blips in 2010 and 2011 aside (and of course, the terror attacks of 2001), the job of police officer has been getting safer for about a generation now -- much safer.'

So while officer fatalities are steadily declining– going on twenty years– incidents of police officers killing civilians are curiously on the rise. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that the number of justifiable homicides committed by police from around 2000 through 2008 increased roughly 30 percent overall– despite crime rates continuing to fall over that time. Moreover, while 72 cops were shot and killed in all 2011, 54 civilians were shot and killed by police in Los Angeles County in 2011 alone, a 70 percent increase from the previous year. Not to mention at least 12 of them were completely unarmed.

Now, I certainly do not mean to imply that cops are shooting and killing civilians with wanton disregard, nor am I intending to minimize those officers killed while on duty. Policing is a profession that certainly exposes those who choose it to legitimate dangers – and I do not want to diminish the perils many cops face on a daily basis. However, choosing statistics from an extremely small sample and making broad generalizations from said numbers isn’t very telling– about the amount of police deaths or civilians killed by law enforcement.

Even more so when such a small sample is being used to conjure up fears about how cop-killing civilians are roaming the streets – thereby painting an inaccurate picture of the relative dangers of police work today. Besides, as Balko notes, sometimes politicians and law enforcement officials have incentives to make police work seem far more dangerous than it actually is. As this dramatized imagery can form the basis of arguments advocating “for more gun-control laws, …increased police departments…, …the increasing militarization of America's police forces, … against more accountability and oversight…, and…for more leeway for police officers to dispense ‘street justice’ in order to maintain order and to ensure that criminals still fear them.”

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