Is Police Work Dangerous? Not Compared to Farming.

In a story that quotes our own Radley Balko, The Drug War Chronicle looks at numbers for police deaths in the line of duty and concludes that enforcing the drug laws is not as dangerous as it's reputed to be. "Despite making nearly two million drug arrests last year, only four American police officers were killed enforcing the drug laws," the Chronicle reports. "More law enforcement officers were killed directing traffic than enforcing the drug laws." The numbers for earlier years bounce around, but they're all pretty low: seven in 2000, 13 in 2001, two in 2002, 13 in 2003, 14 in 2004, and 10 in 2005. The Chronicle uses these numbers to argue that drug offenders are not as dangerous as police imply and that SWAT teams are overused in drug law enforcement.

I think both assertions are true, but I'm not sure the fatality numbers prove them. Police might argue in response that they keep officer deaths down precisely by using overwhelming force even in situations where it might not seem appropriate (an argument that Radley debunks in his Cato report on militarization of the police, which is why he's cited in the article). The comparison with deaths among cops directing traffic is hard to evaluate without knowing how many officers are assigned to that sort of work vs. how many are assigned to drug law enforcement. The comparison the Chronicle draws between policing and other, more dangerous occupations (including logging, flying, fishing, trash collection, farming, roofing, and truck driving) is interesting but likewise inconclusive.

I'm inclined to be suspicious of arguments that reach the same conclusion regardless of whether a particular number is high or low. If a large number of police officers were killed each year while enforcing the drug laws, reformers would (correctly) cite such black-market-related violence as yet another cost of prohibition and one more reason to end the war on drugs. As it is, the low number of deaths is cited as evidence that drug offenders are mostly nonviolent, one more reason to end the war on drugs.

The other side, of course, can do the same trick: Many officer deaths demonstrate the need to deal harshly with these vicious drug dealers; few officer deaths show our SWAT-heavy tactics are working.

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  • andy||

    this guys is stupid! just because you dont have drugs in your pocket dosent mean your not on them when you shoot at somebody or shoot at a cop. A cop got shot down in SF couple weeks ago and the person who did it didnt have drugs on him no but that fool looked like he was looking for some!

  • Sam Franklin||

    Nice post, Big J. In The Big D.! Introspective.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    Years ago when Ca work comp rates were set by law machinists had a higher rate insurance than police officers. That says something, at least about the severity of claims, if nothing else. Too long ago to remember but seems like there was a pretty big disparity.

  • ||

    I'm surprised at how low the numbers are, even considering that it is only related to enforcing the drug laws. I wouldn't be surprised if the number of officers killed by their spouses is higher.

    andy

    What is your point? I have read your post 3 times & cannot get what you are driving at.

  • ||

    Around St. Louis, it has become a tradition to give an officer killed in the line of duty a huge funeral procession of Police cruisers. It seems to make no difference if it was accidental or not. We even had a big deal over an officer who was killed in a wrong way accident on a local interstate. Turns out he was DWI (nearly 3X legal limit).

    I wonder who is minding the store while all of this is going on. Oh yeah, and who is paying for it?

    As to dangerous occuption, I nominate any convenience store clerk or gas station attendant that works nights.

  • ||

    Quickly! To the actuarial tables!

  • pigwiggle||

    I posted some numbers not too long ago regarding the rate of fatalities in certain professions. If I remember correctly; in 2004, 92 in 100,000 fatalities for Loggers and also 92 in 100K for aircraft pilots (crop-dusters, etc). 72 in 100K for active duty and reserve soldiers. So, there's that.

  • ||

    mediageek wins, hands down.

  • thoreau||

    I'm inclined to be suspicious of arguments that reach the same conclusion regardless of whether a particular number is high or low. If a large number of police officers were killed each year while enforcing the drug laws, reformers would (correctly) cite such black-market-related violence as yet another cost of prohibition and one more reason to end the war on drugs. As it is, the low number of deaths is cited as evidence that drug offenders are mostly nonviolent, one more reason to end the war on drugs.

    And this kind of carefuly, skeptical analysis is why Jacob Sullum is my favorite Reason writer. No offense to the others, but Jacob is my favorite. And, strangely enough, the most analytical writer at Reason is the guy on the hallucinogens beat.

  • ||

    I'd like to see some numbers on how many "civilians" were killed during the enforcement of drug laws those same years.

  • ||

    I'd like to see some numbers on how many civilians were killed during the enforcement of drug laws those same years.

    Yeah, and family pets, too.

  • ||

    The safety of officers patrolling the highways is no joke. One of our county sheriff's deputies is on the critical list in the hospital. He was setting up cones around an accident scene when another motorist spun out on the wet pavement and hit him.

    Car hits, critically injures deputy
    Crash is 3rd this week for department


    ...Deputy Tim Johnson, a married father of two children younger than 3, was the third deputy struck since Sunday on the county's interstates and highways. He suffered the most critical injuries of the three.... - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel



    TANJIT! This LEO was doing something to make the rest of us safer.

    Kevin

  • Thomas Paine\'s Goiter||

    He was setting up cones around an accident scene when another motorist spun out on the wet pavement and hit him.

    Driving in wet weather should be banned.

  • Thomas Paine\'s Goiter||

    I'm inclined to be suspicious of arguments that reach the same conclusion regardless of whether a particular number is high or low.

    It's the benefit of arguing from the ethical, moral and logical high ground. Enjoy it.

  • Warren||

    And this kind of carefuly, skeptical analysis is why Jacob Sullum is my favorite Reason writer. And, strangely enough, the most analytical writer at Reason is the guy on the hallucinogens beat.

    And when he's walking his beat, I completely agree. However, when he ventures into the Mid East all that careful skepticism gets left behind.

  • Taktix||

    They must be justifying the costs of SWAT teams by showing board members the raid scene in Point Break.

  • RSDavis||

    Around St. Louis, it has become a tradition to give an officer killed in the line of duty a huge funeral procession of Police cruisers. It seems to make no difference if it was accidental or not. We even had a big deal over an officer who was killed in a wrong way accident on a local interstate. Turns out he was DWI (nearly 3X legal limit).

    That's where I am, too! That Sean Hornbeck thing was crazy, no? I'll tell you, the only good government program of the last 30 years has to be that Amber alert system.

    - Rick

  • ||

    "the only good government program of the last 30 years has to be..."

    ...GPS.

  • ||

    I'm inclined to be suspicious of arguments that reach the same conclusion regardless of whether a particular number is high or low.

    Its the hallmark of faith-based or essentially religious thinking. See, e.g., the morphing of "global warming" into "climate change".

  • Allen||

    And it gets trickier than that. How are the drug numbers compiled? Are they, let's say, including all incidents that involved drug charges? All sorts of charges that would include things such as a possesion charge that resulted from a traffic stop? Or some drunk guy with weed in his pocket that had a silly run in with the po-po? I would assume those are pretty low risk to start with. So what do the numbers really say, if anything?

  • ||

    Only four GOOD (narcotics) cops last year.

  • hmm||

    I've fought the police/fire is dangerous meme. Sure it takes some training and balls to run into a burning building, but firefighters rarely do if there really is a danger. And police spend more time writing traffic tickets than anything.

    Now when I worked forestry I spent every day around 60 to 80 feet in the air hanging off a rope, one handing 190 razors moving at 4000 rpm, and swinging chunks of wood weighing up to 500 lbs on arcs of over 30 feet. Not to mention working with equipment that can be down right scarry. Tell me again how dangerous it is to clean a firehouse, and sit in a police car?

    (I also worked as a medic, so have some exposure to how dangerous it is)

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