Does Police Work Involve Special 'Bravery,' 'Courage,' or 'Risk,' As the White House Claims?


President Obama and police
White House

It's good to excel at your job—and if that excellence involves protecting the innocent and rescuing children, so much the better. Good stuff. But if we're going to recognize individuals who have done awesome things, is it entirely necessary to lavishly spread the praise so that their entire trade is stroked as especially courageous, even when the actual facts suggest it's one job among many, done by people of varying virtue?

Well, yeah. When it comes to cops and politicians, such mass petting apparently is necessary. Like when President Obama and Vice President Biden pasted on their smiles to honor the National Organization of Police Organizations' "Top Cops" winners at the White House.

Said Biden

And the President and I, we recognize the bravery that you display simply by putting on that shield every morning.  That, all by itself, is an act of bravery.  Strapping on your sidearm, kissing your husband or your wife goodbye at the door, walking out knowing—because most of you are experienced—knowing that you don't know with any degree of certitude what's about to greet you.  You have no idea—except some of it may not be good.

The officers we have here today have been singled out for going above and beyond the call of duty, and we commend each and every one of them.  And from my perspective, there's no greater honor that a law enforcement officer could have than being recognized and nominated by his fellow officers—because you all know what real courage is.  You all know what kind of steel in your spine it takes to make the decisions that the men standing behind me have made.

We also know that there are thousands and thousands of more law enforcement officers out there on the job today and every day who are taking risks that are hard for ordinary people to imagine.  They take risks to protect the community, protect the people they don't know, protect people they've never met.  But they go out there and you all do it anyway, regardless of whether or not—where they're from, who they are, whether you know them or not.

"Bravery"? "Courage"? "Risk"? So this is the White House edition of Deadliest Catch?

That might make sense. For years, commercial fishing was the most dangerous trade in which an American could engage. In 1995, risking your life to gather fresh seafood carried a score of 21.3 on the Bureau of Labor Statistic Index of Relative Risk. Police work came in at 3.4. Driving a taxi scored at 9.5.

Even if you limit the danger to homicide, cashiers, cabbies, and "Supervisors, proprietors, sales" carried greater risks of being murdered on the job.

Have the relative dangers for police work increased since 1995?

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Well…There's a change. People are now falling out of trees more often than they're falling overboard. But law enforcement still isn't in the top rank of dangerous jobs.

According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, there were 100 on-the-job deaths in 2013, down from 183 in 1995 (and 280 in 1974).

Which doesn't lessen the individual bravery involved in "Storming an underground bunker to rescue a kidnapped five-year-old boy"—one of the feats honored at the White House. And it's good when work gets safer.

But, reality TV aside, lumberjacks don't draw the same kind of official praise as police officers. Nor do commercial fishermen. Or airline pilots. Or roofers.

And lumberjacks and company don't wield the same sort of power over their neighbors, not always for the sort of praiseworthy purposes touted at the White House ceremony. Law enforcement is increasingly militarized, larded with special authority, and prone to civil liberties abuses. Police are also increasingly resented by ther fellow Americans for the same, even if politicians don't quite get that lots of folks don't appreciate getting pushed around by uniformed enforcers.

Then again, maybe that's politicians like them so much—at least, so long as they know who butters their bread.

As Obama said:

And let me start by thanking Joe Biden not only for being a great Vice President—which he is—but also being a lifelong friend of law enforcement.  (Applause.)  Now, he and I have a special reason for loving law enforcement, because we have the unusual privilege of being surrounded by law enforcement every minute of every day. (Laughter.)  And they also protect the people we love most in the world—our families.  So we're incredibly grateful to them and to all the law enforcement officers who serve and protect families and communities across the nation every single day.

Too Praetorian for my taste. Better to praise the standouts—and keep a close eye on the rest.