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.