Civil Liberties

The Eternally Recurring Legend of a 'War on Cops'

We've heard this story before. Many times before.


Warner Bros.

"It is open season on the police," the New York Daily News editorialized. Two state troopers and two auxiliary city cops had been slain in the last few months, "and there have been at least a dozen attacks on the NYPD since December." The paper knew just want to call the onslaught: a war on cops.

It sounds like one of countless columns, TV reports, and talk-radio monologues produced this year. But this editorial appeared in 2007.

For years now, any cluster of violent attacks on police officers—or even a single attack, if it seems particularly cold-blooded or gruesome—is prone to prompt people to warn that a war on cops is underway. Then the cluster passes and the fear subsides until the next spike begins, at which point, like a hive of amnesiacs, the media start trumpeting a war on cops once more. Yet if you peer past the inevitable year-to-year zig-zags in the numbers and look at the long-term trends, police in the U.S. have been less and less likely to be either killed or assaulted on the job.

In 2007, there was indeed an increase in the number of cop-killings. The year after that, the count came down and the phrases "war on cops" and "war on police" went back in the drawer. And in 2009, they were pulled out again.

The terms turned up in a few different contexts that year, but they really took off after Maurice Clemmons shot four officers in Lakewood, Washington, at the end of November. The most influential voice spreading the story this time was probably the conservative writer Michelle Malkin, who opened a widely cited syndicated column like this:

The left's police-hating chickens are coming home to roost. While partisan liberals have gone out of their way to blame conservative media and the Tea Party movement for creating a "climate of hate," they are silent on the cultural and literal war on cops that has raged for decades—and escalated tragically this year.

The total number of law enforcement officers shot and killed this year is up 19 percent over last year, according to the Christian Science Monitor. More officers have died in ambush incidents this year than in any other since 2000.

Malkin blamed the spike on a different sort of "climate of hate": "years of cop-bashing rap," "the glamorization of poisonous anti-police domestic terrorist groups," "the mainstreaming of anti-police demagogues Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton," and "the global glorification of Death Row cop-killers." She also noted that a "militant online group called the National Black Foot Soldier Network" had celebrated Clemmons' massacre. It was the same sort of argument you hear today, just with a slightly different gallery of villains.

The next big wave of warnings came in 2011, and this time figures a lot more prominent than Malkin took up the cry. In March, for example, The Christian Science Monitor ran a story headlined "Is there a 'war on cops'? Eric Holder vows action as police fears rise." Here's how it began:

Remember that phrase, Eric. It's gonna come back to haunt you.
Department of Justice

Minutes after Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday called a sharp rise in the number of cops killed on the job "simply unacceptable" and vowed action, a young Athens, Ga., police officer died after getting into a gunfight with a grudge-carrying carjacker.

Coming off a year that saw an increase in the number of police officers killed, especially by gunfire, the first three months of 2011 have seen another dramatic spike as the "officer down" call has gone out in Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, and other states.

Mr. Holder's vow—at a meeting with police chiefs at the Justice Department in Washington—to fight back underscores that many in the US police community are worried about a looming "war on cops" in line with what some experts say is declining respect for law and order—and the US government.

The rise of right-wing movements like the "sovereign citizens"—two of whose members were involved in a double police homicide in 2010—is part of the equation, as is the expanding availability of guns and the growing willingness of armed citizens to use them.

These days it's common for conservatives to blame Holder for helping to instigate a war on cops, so it's interesting to see the attorney general leading the charge back then. (He even used the phrase "war on cops" himself at that Washington meeting.) Note also the reference to the sovereign citizens. Malkin's 2009 column had explicitly offered her story as an alternative to a rival narrative, one where right-wing rhetoric was supposedly fueling a wave of political violence. By 2011, though, those two storylines had converged: The alleged war on cops and the alleged rise in right-wing violence were being presented as parts of the same problem.

And then, after the outlier period that had attracted Holder's attention, the numbers started falling again. Indeed, they were falling deeper than ever before: 2013 would be the safest year on record for American police.

In 2014, the number of police shot on duty was still lower than it had been before that spike that attracted the Daily News' attention back in 2007. But it was higher than in 2013—that is, higher than an extraordinarily safe year—and so the legend of the war on cops came roaring back. Sometimes this resurgence reflected relatively apolitical fears, as when Jersey City police steeled themselves for a rumored gang assault that never came. But the alleged onslaught was increasingly likely to be blamed on the burgeoning movement against intrusive policing. The murders of two NYPD officers in December 2014 were widely (if dubiously) blamed on the rhetoric emanating from the movement; and the movement's critics highlighted the fiercest rhetoric they could dig up, even if that meant heading to rather obscure places to find it.

Meanwhile, extrapolating from the number of police killed on the job thus far this year, 2015 is on track to be the profession's second safest year on record:

From those notorious commies at AEI.
American Enterprise Institute

The standard response when you bring up such figures is to argue that even if cop-killings are down in general, ideologically motivated cop-killings may be on the rise. The proper measurement, it is suggested, is not how many officers are murdered in toto but how many are killed in ambushes or shot execution-style, since those are the methods that imply a shooter deliberately set out to kill a cop. In practice, it's often tricky to tease out the motives in such attacks, because they can also include suicide-by-cop situations, people who are simply deranged, and other apolitical assaults. But even ignoring those distinctions, if you tally up such deaths in 2015 thus far, as recorded by the Officer Down Memorial Page's running count of police killed on the job, your total will be in the single digits.

Needless to say, each of those killings is terrible for the victims and their loved ones. But they do not add up to anything like a war.

When a story catches on, it says something true about the anxieties of the people who believe and repeat it, even if the tale itself is false. So it is with the war on cops. Policemen have plenty to be nervous about—it's still a risky job, even if it has been getting safer—so it shouldn't be surprising if some of them perceive a patch of crimes as a portent of something bigger. Nor should it be startling that the storyline is striking a chord with the opponents of criminal justice reform, who have been on the defensive recently. And of course we all accept that some explicitly political violence against the police did erupt in two towns recently, during the Ferguson and Baltimore riots. It's not exactly extraordinary that some Americans might suspect those melees were moments in a larger invisible assault.

But there's little evidence that the larger assault actually exists. The phrase "war on cops" isn't a description of the world so much as it's a story looking for events to attach itself to.