Cops in America: Safer Than They Have Ever Been

Police stand watch as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown on August 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.

Police stand watch as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown on August 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. If there is a war on cops, the cops in St. Louis County are ready. But where is the evidence, and who is the enemy? (Wikipedia photo)

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.


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8 Responses to Cops in America: Safer Than They Have Ever Been

  1. Tom says:

    War BY cops is more like it. Too many unexplained and warrentless exercises of extermination – what ever happened to apprehension to face justice in a court of law? Now they decide on the spur of the moment and often make mistakes (murders of innocent victims of swat teams going to the wrong address abound).

    i guess it’s just part of the plan – you know, an off-shoot of the “drills” that are held and then suddenly it’s live and for real – how’s that work? Well, it keeps happening, with no official explanation that makes any sense.

    Thanks for bringing this to light Mr. Lewis.

  2. “As they say [irony alert] it’s why they get the big bucks.”

    To carry that irony a bit further out, You get what you pay for.

    Then again, we pay handsomely the occupants of Wall Street and Washington – not to mention our celebrity entertainers and athletes – and they’re just professional criminals (with professional defense attorneys).

    Perhaps it’s just the entire spectrum of the culture that is in decline.

  3. steven says:

    I like the blog. Police in the UK generally don’t carry guns. I think the USA has “cultural issues” – one day, if the USA becomes a democracy – it might be able to sort out its cultural and social issues?

  4. Tom says:

    @steven: never gonna happen.

    The ‘War on Cops’ is Pure Propaganda – Police Kill Themselves at Triple the Rate they’re Murdered


    The mainstream media often portrays the unfortunate random killing of police officers as analogous to a larger “war on cops.” The reality is that there is a concerted public relations effort underway, on the part of law enforcement, with the intention of stemming the growing public calls for more oversight and accountability.

    If law enforcement were genuine about wanting to save the lives of cops, they would begin by attempting to put focus on the out of control epidemic of police suicides, which dwarfs the number of cops fatally shot the line of duty.

    The last year on public record for police suicides was 2012, with a staggering 126 officers reported to have intentionally killed themselves. Compare that with the number of police fatally shot in the line of duty last year; 47.

    Let that sink in for a moment. American police are 300% more likely to kill themselves than be shot and killed by another individual.


    While even one death is a tragedy, the reality is that now is one of the safest times to be a cop in the past 30 years.

  5. Dudley Dunright says:

    There’s no mystery: cops are the domestic army, serving the same function as the military in a banana republic. Fittingly, the bedrock of modern policing is the counterinsurgency tactics developed by the US military. Required reading on the subject is Kristian Williams’ Our Enemies In Blue: Police and Power In America. It’s a unique work: a social history of policing in America.

    As Gore Vidal once quipped, “Law and order – ignore one and impose the other.”

  6. Karl Kolchak says:

    Thank you for this post. I am a retired LEO myself and am appalled at the actions of so many fellow officers, not to mention the attitudes of even former colleagues whom I otherwise greatly respect. Professionalism is indeed the key word, and I have no use for any officer who does not act in a professional manner when dealing with members of the general public.

    Any cop whose actions result in the death of unarmed civilian, regardless of whether than civilian was engaged in a crime or not, should be sanctioned–from firing up to prosecution and conviction depending upon whether his/her actions were found to be intentional.

  7. Tom says:

    What do you think of this, Karl?

    Bill would protect identity of cops involved in shootings


    Now, a Pennsylvania state representative has a bill she hopes will quell the raw emotion that can lead to violence or vigilante justice after a police-involved shooting or other serious incident.

    But the American Civil Liberties Union and the head of the state’s largest municipal police force say the bill proposed by Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, might do more harm than good.

    White’s bill, which already has 42 co-sponsors, would grant anonymity to police officers involved in the “discharge of a firearm or the use of force” unless the officer is charged with a crime. If no charge is filed, the officer’s identity would be kept secret to protect the “officer or their immediate family.”

    In an interview, White said she was introducing the bill in response to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey’s new policy to publicly release police officers’ names within three days of a shooting.

  8. Sarah Purol says:

    Thanks for having the courage to post the truth of this Tom. It’s refreshing.