Between January 20 and January 25, 13 police officers were shot in the U.S., five of them fatally. Two officers in St. Petersburg, Florida, were killed while trying to arrest a suspect accused of aggravated battery. Two more were killed in Miami while trying to arrest a suspected murderer. An officer in Oregon was seriously wounded and another in Indiana was killed after they were shot during routine traffic stops. The Indiana assailant had a long and violent criminal record. The suspect in Oregon is still at large. In another incident, four officers were injured in Detroit when a man about to be charged in a murder investigation walked into a police station and opened fire.
Some police advocates have drawn unsupported conclusions from this rash of attacks, claiming that they are tied to rising anti-police sentiment, anti-government protest, or a lack of adequate gun control laws. Media outlets also have been quick to draw connections between these unrelated shootings. While these incidents are tragic, the ensuing alarmism threatens to stifle much-needed debate about police tactics, police misconduct, and police accountability.
Jon Shane, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told NPR the January shootings "follow some bit of a larger trend in the United States," which he described as an "overriding sense of entitlement and 'don't tread on me.'" Craig W. Floyd, chairman of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, told UPI, "It's a very troubling trend where officers are being put at greater risk than ever before." The same article summarized the opinions of other police leaders who think the shootings "reflected a broader lack of respect for authority."
Richard Roberts, spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations, told MSNBC, "It's not a fluke….There's a perception among officers in the field that there's a war on cops going on." Police critic William Grigg notes that Smith County, Texas, Sheriff J.B. Smith told the NBC station in Tyler, "I think it's a hundred times more likely today that an officer will be assaulted compared to twenty, thirty years ago. It has become one of the most hazardous jobs in the United States, undoubtedly—in the top five."
During his interview with Shane, NPR host Michael Martin linked the shootings to the availability of guns. Salon's Amy Steinberg concluded "there is a disturbing trend and an increasingly pressing need to revisit the conversation on gun control."
Dig into most of these articles, however, and you will find there is no real evidence of an increase in anti-police violence, let alone one that can be traced to anti-police rhetoric, gun sales, disrespect for authority, or "don't tread on me" sentiment. (CNN is one of the few media outlets that have covered the purported anti-police trend with appropriate skepticism.) Amid all the quotes from concerned law enforcement officials in MSNBC's "War on Cops" article, for example, is a casual mention that police fatality statistics for this month are about the same as they were in January 2010. Right after suggesting to NPR that the recent attacks were related to anti-government rhetoric, Shane acknowledged there has been little research into the underlying causes of police shootings.
In truth, on-the-job police fatalities have dropped nearly 50 percent during the last 20 years, even as the total number of cops has doubled. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 279 cops were killed on the job in 1974, the worst year on record. That number steadily decreased to just 116 in 2009. The leading cause of death for cops on duty is car accidents, not violence. For the last several years, the number of officers intentionally killed on the job each year has ranged from 45 to 60, out of about 850,000 cops on the beat. That makes police officers about 50 percent more likely to be intentionally killed than the average American. But contrary to Sheriff Smith's claim, the job isn't among the 10 most dangerous in the country, let alone the "the top five," even if you include officers unintentionally killed in traffic accidents.
As for guns, Salon's Steinberg strangely came to her conclusion about "the pressing need to revisit the conversation on gun control" just a few paragraphs after she noted that gun sales have risen dramatically during the same 20-year period when police officer fatalities have plummeted. Last year there was an increase in officers intentionally killed on the job, from 41 to 58, which Steinberg characterizes this way: "In 2010 policemen killed on the job rose by nearly 40 percent, the greatest increase since 1974." That's true. But isn't it more significant that these numbers have dropped to the point where 17 additional deaths now represents an increase of 40 percent? In any event, 2010 also saw the smallest increase in gun sales in six years.
None of this is meant to denigrate the heroism of police officers who confront and apprehend dangerous people, and we certainly should honor and remember those who are injured or killed while doing so. But seizing on an anomalous series of terrible shootings as evidence of a nonexistent anti-police trend skews the debate on issues such as aggressive police tactics, police militarization, the use of Tasers, searches and pat-downs, and police transparency and accountability. Officer safety is important, but it should not come at the expense of the safety and civil liberties of the people they are sworn to protect.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.