Just How Dangerous Is Police Work?


The news wires buzzed yesterday with stories about an uptick in police fatalities last year. Most stories followed that lead with language about the dangers of police work. I won't deny that police work is more dangerous than your average profession (it's certainly more dangerous than journalism). I also don't mean to belittle those cops who were killed in the line of duty. Nor will I argue with the fact that there are times when police officers really do put their lives on the line, and that those who do deserve our admiration and gratitude.

But it's also important to get some perspective, here. Browse online police forums, and you'll see cops defending all sorts of bad acts by other cops with lines like, "I'll do whatever we have to do to make it home at night." Letting statistics like those released yesterday go unchallenged with only the varnish applied by various professional police organizations exaggerates the real threat to police officers, and leads to the troubling trend toward militarization we've seen over the last 25 years. It also allows for police groups and advocates to dismiss aggressive behavior, excuse improper police shootings, and justify all of those taser videos we've seen over the last couple of years. We should do what we can to diminish the threat to police officers, but not at the expense of the rights and safety of everyone else. Striking the right balance requires a proper assessment of just what sorts of risks police officers actually face.

So just how dangerous is police work? Generally, police are about three times as likely to be killed on the job as the average American. It isn't among the top ten most dangerous professions, falling well behind logging, fishing, driving a cab, trash collecting, farming, and truck driving. Moreover, about half of police killed on the job are killed in traffic accidents, and most of those are not while in pursuit of a criminal or rushing to the scene of a crime. I don't point this out to diminish the tragedy of those cops killed in routine traffic accidents. My point is that the number of annual on-the-job police fatalities doesn't justify giving cops bigger guns, military equipment, and allowing them to use more aggressive and increasingly militaristic tactics. A military-issue weapon isn't going to prevent traffic accidents. In this context, then, it makes sense to remove from consideration deaths not directly attributable to the bad guys.

So take out traffic accidents and other non-violent deaths, and you're left with 69 officers killed on the job by criminals last year. That's out of about 850,000 officers nationwide. That breaks down to about 8 deaths per 100,000 officers, or less than twice the national average of on-the-job fatalities.

Now I suppose you could argue that on-the-job police fatalities are low because of the very things I'm arguing against—aggressive tactics, bigger guns and armor, military equipment, etc. But I'm not sure that's backed by the numbers. On-the-job police fatalities peaked in 1974, at the height of Nixon's war on drugs. They declined throughout the 1970s under Carter's less aggressive drug war, then leveled off in the 1980s under Reagan. The next big drop came in the 1990s, coinciding with a dramatic overall drop in violent crime nationwide. Probably not coincidentally, the slight increase in police fatalities in 2007 also came during a year that saw a slight uptick in violent crime in general.

Twice the national average means police work certainly carries added risk. But is it the kind of risk that justifies, for example, a more than 1,000 percent increase in the use of SWAT teams over the last 25 years? Does it justify the fact that our cops that once looked like this now look like this? Your call, I guess.

Of course, if policymakers were really serious about protecting police officers, there's one thing they could do that would have a dramatic, immediate impact on officer safety: They could end the drug war.