The "War on Cops" That Isn't

Despite what you may have read, it's safer to be a police officer today than it has been in 35 years.


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. 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 drew unsupported conclusions from this rash of attacks, claiming they were tied to rising anti-police sentiment, anti-government protest, or a lack of adequate gun control laws. Some media outlets were also quick to draw connections between these unrelated shootings. While these incidents were tragic, the ensuing alarmism threatens to stifle some much-needed debate about police tactics, police misconduct, and police accountability.

In a January interview with NPR, Jon Shane, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the 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." UPI reported that several police leaders thought 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." Smith County, Texas, Sheriff J.B. Smith told Tyler's KLTV-TV, "I think it's a hundred times more likely today that an officer will be assaulted compared to 20, 30 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. And Salon's Amy Steinberg, describing the crimes as "a disturbing trend," wrote that they demonstrated "an increasingly pressing need to revisit the conversation on gun control."

Dig into these articles, and you'll find 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. Amid all the quotes from concerned law enforcement officials in MSNBC's "War on Cops" article, for example, was a casual mention that police fatality statistics for January 2011 were 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 fact, the number of on-the-job police fatalities has dropped nearly 50 percent in the last two decades, 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. (The latter number is from the Fraternal Order of Police; other estimates put the number as low as 550,000.) Contrary to Sheriff Smith's claim, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that policing isn't among the 10 most dangerous occupations in the country, let alone "the top five," even if you include traffic accidents.

Nonfatal assaults on police officers are down too. According to the FBI's Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted database, a little more than 10 percent of police officers were assaulted on the job in 2009, the last year for which data are available. That's a 25-year low, down from a high of just under 18 percent in 1992. And these numbers are for reported assaults, not convictions.

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 characterized 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.

It may well be true that the public is growing increasingly skeptical of law enforcement officers. The Internet, cell phone cameras, and other technologies are making it easier for citizens to hold bad cops accountable. Citizen-shot video is increasingly being used to show that officers lied on police reports. There has also been some controversy during the last few years about police officers who arrest, threaten, and intimidate citizens who record them (see "The War on Cameras," January). A bevy of watchdog websites has sprung up in recent years to document police abuses.

While the use of SWAT teams and paramilitary tactics has increased dramatically during the last 30 years, there is no evidence that police misconduct is on the rise. On the contrary, most criminologists believe police professionalism and training are improving. But there is almost certainly more awareness of misconduct, and that's a good thing. That increased awareness may also lead to some increased skepticism, mistrust, or even resentment of the police. But there's no evidence this sentiment has translated into violence.

None of this is meant to denigrate the heroism of police officers who confront and apprehend dangerous people. We should honor and remember those who are injured or killed protecting the public, and we should celebrate the fact that a police officer's job has gotten so much safer.

But the media love a good scare story. For police organizations, seizing on an anomalous series of shootings as evidence of cop hatred can transform the debates over such issues as funding for police departments, aggressive police tactics, police militarization, the use of Tasers, searches and pat-downs, and police transparency and accountability. Don't be misled. The safety of police officers 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 (rbalko@reason.com) is a senior editor at reason.