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.

Not to be confused with the

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.

NEXT: Indian Outlaw

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    1. Don’t worry, scrote. There are plenty of ‘tards out there living really kick-ass lives. My first wife was ‘tarded. She’s a pilot now.

    2. There is no war on cops by the people. However, the government is at war with its own people. So, the cops are at war with the people that they are supposed to be serving. Nuff said.

  2. in the face of like facts and stuff, we do need constant reminders of how heroic cops are.

    1. Hey, their job is nearly as dangerous as delivering pizza. Are you bad-mouthing pizza? How dare you?

      1. Fuck pizza!

        1. Er…thanks, no. I’ll stick with eating it, if you please.

          1. Happy day, just ran across some leftover in the office!

      2. id say pizza guys are a little more heroic. they’re facing danger every day to bring hungry people pizza!

  3. “It is open season on the police, …”

    I hate that term in this context for many reasons. Do the editors at the Daily News even realize that it implies the State decides when hunting seasons open?

    1. I meant to say that it implies the State has declared open season on officers, because the State is in control of hunting seasons…

      Need more coffee

      1. You know who else needed more coffee?

        1. Amerigo Vespucci?

          1. That guy again ? Like he ever did anything to get so much named after him !

  4. The media survives and thrives by selling ad space, and sensation sells that better than anything else.

    Governments and businesses make their living by fear mongering and then providing the safety and/or solution to those fears.

    It’s a perfect match and should be no surprise.

    1. Do you think we could interest the media in a “War on Libertarians!”?

      1. “Yes, where do we enlist?!”


  5. Conservative talkers get to use the idea to bash over the head Holder and any liberal officeholder who use police misconduct to garner votes from the usual victims of it (while at the same time using overpolicing to get money to pay for their big government schemes).

    Law enforcement themselves get to use the idea as an excuse to be on “high alert” (aka justification to slam in the face with their Tom-of-Finland-gloved fists anyone who looks at them in a disrespectful manner). Cops know there’s no war but they talk it up among themselves to make sure they’re convincing when talking it up to the public.

    1. Totally agree, Fist. The cops know there is too much money and privilege in what they do to EVER say anything but the most alarmist statement. And who would ever demonize the poor, heroic boys in blue?

      1. No, but given the chance they’d happily dispense with the fourth and selectively curtail the second.

        1. Woops, this was in reply to your comment below.

    2. I disagree on the point that “Cops know there’s no war”. Im reading Lee’s classic book on European dictatorships, and one of the common threads Lee finds in authoritarian regimes is the everpresent complaint of victimization – for example the Germans complaints of their treatment under the Treaty of Versailles, Stalins accusations of kulak malfeseance, etc

      The point is that aggression is more easily justified in the authoritarian brain when the aggression is conceptualized as self-defense. Officer Friendly isnt beating and macing an unarmed protestor, he is defending himself and his brothers in blue from a dangerous partisan in the War Against Cops. Officer Huggies isnt stopping and frisking a random black guy for no reason, he is disarming a gang banger who is part of a conspiracy to assassinate our brave law enforcement Heroes.

      1. Is Officer ASPCA protecting himself against the family’s twenty pound chocolate lab puppy, too, or is that just naked aggression?

      2. Yes. The initiation of back-talk is aggression, kinda like hate speech. The initiation of force is thereby justified.

      3. Once you start examining authoritarian claims for this appeal to victimization, you can see it everywhere. Whether victimization actually occurs is not a counter argument to my point; actual victimization only makes authoritarian responses more appealing. The truth or falsity of the claim is largely irrelevant: what is important is the emotional appeal and the justification of draconian intervention.

        – Zero tolerance policies save children from school shooters.

        – Militarized borders, detention camps and the mass deportation of millions protect real americans from thieves who want to steal jobs – not to mention the rapists & drug traffickers

        – Jews should be exterminated because they drain blood from Christian babies to use in secret rituals

        – Children who take pictures of themselves naked have to be imprisoned to protect children from child pornography.

        – Millions of people must be imprisoned and thousands of people must be killed by the state to protect us from drug addiction

        The theme here is that the aggression is reframed as self-defense. Even outrageous and irrational responses take on an emotional/moral logic when viewed as a reaction to an assault.

        1. Kings of old were granted the Divine Right of the King by God.

          Today’s governments have been granted the Will of the People by Representation.

          This means governments’ enforcers can lie, cheat, steal, murder and rape, all with a clean conscience, because they are serving a Greater Good.

          Anyone who questions their actions is waging war against them and the Greater Good that they serve.

          The costumes are different, but in practice it is exactly the same.

        2. This also applies to asset forfeiture and the LEO groups in CA defeating the proposed requirement for higher standards and conviction.

      4. I don’t know if they’re generally that delusional about who’s being victimized in their minds’ war or not, I admit. But I can’t imagine deep down they actually believe that they’re not in almost complete control of every situation they encounter “out there”.

    3. * liberal: closet socialist, from mystical Newspeak, 1930

      1. The points are well taken, but the Christian National Socialist Workers Party of Germany acted in part on the premise that altruism was an innate trait lacking in Jewish people, but correctable by applied eugenics in the interest or improving the Race to make the world safe for looter christianity. DNA was only uncovered a few years after the surrender, but Mendelian genetics were popular and the claim that blonde hair and blue eyes = cherubic love of Jesus and Sacrifice is everywhere in the literature and culture. A War on Selfishness draws volunteers like flies on plutocracy.

    4. Oh, I wish i had not googled “Tom-of-Finland”.

      1. +1 gay Santa Claus

    5. The New Centurions
      The Thin Blue Line
      The Blue Wall of Silence

  6. Say what you want about Michelle Malkin and the boobs on the right, none of them are calling for speech restrictions like the fascists on the left.

  7. One question about the chart:

    Does it only count cops shot while on duty and in uniform or does it include cops who were off duty or in plainclothes where the assailant may not have known they were cops. Either way, it would be interesting to see this chart next to a chart of total firearm murders per 1M people. I bet they overlap pretty well. It’s almost as if the country is getting safer every day…

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  9. Denying that there’s War on Cops is part of the War on Cops.

    1. How do you identify someone who is part of the War on Cops? They deny that there is a War on Cops.

  10. The car on wops is tarring this countery apart.

    1. Needs more feathers.

  11. Here’s a handy cheat sheet to use to tell if there is a “War on Cops”.

    Did a black suspect shoot a police officer?

    If yes, it is part of a “war on cops.”

    Are police being criticized for their treatment of a minority?

    If yes, it is part of a “war on cops.”

    If the answer to these questions is no, then there is not a “war on cops.”

    Also, remember that if white people are pointing weapons at law enforcement officers and threatening to shoot them over a rancher not paying grazing fees — this is NOT part of a “war on cops” but a patriotic action against the tyrannical Obama administration.

    1. I wasn’t aware that anyone actually pointed their weapons at the feds during the Bundy standoff. I would have thought that the officers would have opened fire had they seen weapons pointed at them. That’s what they are trained to do.

      1. I always thought this dude was aiming at officers (http://tinyurl.com/pbrw5hk), though I could be mistaken. Either way, the point still stands — this was spun by the same people pushing the “war on cops” narrative as patriots using the Second Amendment to stand up to Obama.

  12. Why not superimpose a graph of arrests on imprisonments for victimless crimes on that graph of police shootings? The thing peaks after the Harrison act and Prohibition Amendment turned the streets into hunting grounds patrolled by men with badges and a license to kill consumers. Then when youth were enslaved as cannon fodder in cartel maneuvers to gain control over Vietnamese heroin production, and said youth turned away from addictive narcotics to LSD, hemp, mushroom and cactus products, the numbers spiked again. What we have is a war on the Bill of Rights declared by mystical fanatics ordering shots fired at US citizens. The police are the tools of those politicians, and turn into believers just as cops were paid to do in National Socialist Germany in the 1930s. Cops with an ounce of brains are no more being warred against than kids ordered to ‘Nam by Johnson and Nixon. Those wars were the work of the Trump, Clinton, Bush, Hoover, and Rand Paul parties.

    1. Look more closely: the institution of liquor prohib’n was the inflection point for gun-related cop deaths. The line goes upward for decades earlier, peaks at the beginning of prohib’n, then starts a drop at a rate that continues after repeal. I don’t know what happened there, but it looks highly significant. We noted this the last time that graph was put up, too.

      1. peaks at the beginning of prohib’n, then starts a drop at a rate that continues after repeal.

        Perhaps once Prohibition got well underway, organized crime had enough money to start buying off cops wholesale, and black market/cop conflict went down?

  13. Victims: “I established a task force under Vice President Bush’s leadership to help the citizens of south Florida fight back. As part of a coordinated plan, we beefed up the number of judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement people. We used military radar and intelligence to detect drug traffickers, which, until we changed the law, could not be done. We increased efforts overseas to cut drugs off before they left other countries’ borders.” Ronald Reagan radio address, 02 OCT 1982.

  14. Jesse Walker’s an incredibly stupid analyst. Thiscurrent war on cops is not just something in an editorial page of the NY Times – it is well documented , complete with Blacks who want it to happen. I guess those Black riots were also “nothing new” for the braindead Walker.

    1. “This current war on cops”? Did you actually read the article? If there’s a “war on cops”, it’s the least successful war ever. Where is this so-called documentation? (Hint: Stormfront doesn’t count.)

  15. I always knew cops were fat morons, but I never realized just how whiny and defensive they were. You’d think people in such a profession would at least be trained to brush off mere criticism. Haha. Sorry. I mean the people a decent society should allow to enter such a profession.

    1. Got to have true morons out there enforcing the endless litany of meaningless progressive laws don’t ya Tony ?

  16. I just want to point out that cops kill themselves at a rate three times that of cop murders.

    1. Precisely why we need common sense laws to disarm the police and require mental illness screening and treatment for all academy applicants.

    2. No, No. I have it on good authority that Cops rarely commit suicide. They do however seem to have a lot of horrific “gun-cleaning” incidents.

  17. The question should be how many were killed while apprehending criminals vs how many were flat out killed because they are cops, we know for a fact that some have been. That is the statistic I want to see not the total number of cops killed or the number of people who have cried wolf about it in the past.

  18. Cops have long seen themselves as an occupying force in a war zone. Hence all their talk of “civilians” and some such. Now they’ve simply formalized it. Remember that it’s cops who declared the war on cops to be something that exists. Imagine if actual wars were handled in a similar fashion. The Second Gulf war could have been spun as “Iraqs war on America.” Actually, that probably would have been effective propaganda…

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  21. Back when I lived in Brooklyn,N.Y., I had the acquaintance of two older gentlemen. One was First Grade Detective in Brooklyn West Homicide, as it was then known. The other was a Lieutenant in the NYC Fire Dept. They used to argue as to which had the more dangerous job, the arguments, more discussions, were always lightly done. One afternoon, while the three of us were having some coffee, the Detective finally admitted, that it was rather obvious whose job was more dangerous, it was the firefighters, especially given the area of the city to which this firefighter was assigned, that area being an old, formerly industrial area..

  22. This article, unfortunately, is becoming typical of what appears to be Reason’s war on cops.

    1. Where can I send guns?

  23. TL;DR

    We are loosing the War on Cops!!!

  24. Single digits! On what planet are you from?? There have been almost 90 Police killed in the line of Duty this year, so far!! Hell we had 8 killed in just 1 week just a couple of weeks ago!!!!!! SINGLE DIGITS!!!! You are a damn lire to make such bald face lie statements as that, single digits!! Your nuts!!!!

    1. I did not say this year’s number of “Police killed in the line of Duty” was in the single digits. I said the number “killed in ambushes or shot execution-style” was in the single digits.

      The total number of line-of-duty deaths so far this year?including accidents and job-related illnesses?is 95.

    2. Check your ‘roid rage, Penfield. It’s affecting your spelling.

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  26. Jack Vance, the sci-fi writer wrote this a long time ago

    “The police mentality cannot regard a human being in terms other than as an item or object to be processed as expeditiously as possible. Public convenience or dignity means nothing; police prerogatives assume the status of divine law. Submissiveness is demanded. If a police officer kills a civilian, it is a regrettable circumstance: the officer was possibly overzealous. If a civilian kills a police officer all hell breaks loose. The police foam at the mouth. All other business comes to a standstill until the perpetrator of this most dastardly act is found out. Inevitably, when apprehended, he is beaten or otherwise tortured for his intolerable presumption. The police complain that they cannot function efficiently, that criminals escape them. Better a hundred unchecked criminals than the despotism of one unbridled police force.

  27. If being a cop is so dangerous, then why don’t worker’s comp insurance rates reflect it?

  28. Being a cop is a safe job. And they are way overpaid.

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