The notion that there is a “war on cops” being conducted in America — beloved of headline writers, politicians, and cops — is a complete myth. Policing, it turns out, is not an especially dangerous job, nor is it getting more so. If you want to honor someone who goes out there every day and puts his life on the line for you, hold a parade for the person who catches your fish. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, commercial fishing is the most dangerous job in America. On the Bureau’s list of the ten most dangerous occupations, police officer does not appear. Nor is the trend going the wrong way; fewer cops were murdered in 2013 than in any year in the past generation, and it looks like 2015 will be about the same.
Logging and fishing, number one and two on the most-dangerous jobs list, have on-the-job fatality rates of about 127 per year per 100,000 workers. The rate for police officers is 11. (And that’s the rate for all deaths on the job, with automobile accidents accounting for almost as many as homicides.) By the numbers, it is twice as dangerous to be a truck driver as to be a crime-buster. By the numbers, your risk of being shot if you are a resident of Baltimore is about the same as if you are a sworn police officer.
So how has this mundane reality been transformed into the extreme paranoia now being shared by the uninformed and the uniformed? There seems to be a defensive, and an offensive, component.
The police offense has been to dive into the bonanza of so-called surplus military equipment rolling home from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, available free to police departments by a special act of Congress. To defend against the “war on cops,” and to avoid being outgunned by drug dealers, departments large and tiny, across the country, have gorged themselves on 30-ton armored personnel carriers, M-16 automatic weapons, flash-bang grenades, night-vision scopes, camouflage and body armor.
When you have a nice new hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Military-style SWAT teams have been used recently to raid barber shops in Florida suspected of operating without licenses, and to enforce liquor regulations among Louisiana nightclubs. Police response to trouble everywhere has more and more come to resemble the kick-in-the-door, kill-’em-all-and-let-God-sort-it-out tactics of urban military combat than the protect-and-defend approach of what we used to call peace officers.
The defensive component has arisen with the recent flurry of police killings of unarmed civilians. The impression is widespread that these killings have sharply increased, but it turns out that no one has been rigorously counting them, and we simply don’t know what the trend actually is. Incomplete statistics analyzed by people grinding various axes indicates the number of such shootings is increasing, especially since all those police departments got all their new toys. The Washington Post counted nearly 500 such shootings in the first five months of this year — a number that stands in stark contrast to the 24 police officers killed in the first eight months of the year. The numbers also indicate that more white people have been killed than black, suggesting the racial component of the problem has been overblown.
Now, none of this is meant to express any lack of respect for professional police officers. The key word being professional. As a lifelong journalist I have shared some sticky situations with police officers, from being abducted by rioters to accidentally arriving at a bank robbery in progress ahead of the first responders, and I learned long ago what professional looks like.
A professional officer knows that his job is to calm excited people, to de-escalate confrontation, to defuse tension and to avoid violence. And he is trained to do just that, prepared for the threats that might arise, practiced in handling them calmly. That is his job, and to expect him to do it when called on is not unreasonable. As they say [irony alert] it’s why they get the big bucks.
When you see a police officer emptying his weapon into the back of a fleeing, unarmed civilian, you are not seeing a professional in action. You are seeing a kind of war, but it is not a war on cops.