How Would You Detect a War on Cops?

How do you tell a pattern from a phantom?


Fox News

If a war on cops broke out, how would you detect it? Pretty much any cluster of cop-killings can set off the war-on-police alarm; over the last decade, voices ranging from the New York tabloids to Eric Holder have periodically warned that such a war is underway. They've always turned out to be crying wolf, but that doesn't mean a wolf can't eventually show up. So now that the war-on-cops talk is bubbling again, how do you evaluate the evidence?

It's a tricky task, because people who start searching for a pattern tend to start imagining it everywhere. In the wake of the shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, just about any act of violence against a police officer can be misconstrued as a political assault. Incidents in Michigan, Maryland, and Kansas were initially mistaken for Dallas-style attacks but then turned out to be something else. The same thing probably happened in Missouri, where someone shot and paralyzed a policeman during a traffic stop; his motive still isn't clear, but given his long criminal history and the fact that the attack doesn't seem to have been preplanned, it's unlikely to be political. And then there are the stories that turn out to be completely untrue. During the Republican National Convention, a rumor circulated that protesters were stabbing cops with syringes. That turned out to be an urban legend, but the authorities banned syringes from the protest area anyway.

Still, it's not every month that you have two ideologically driven ambushes against the police. And there were a couple other incidents in the last few weeks that may turn out to be political too. In Baton Rouge, a group of young people was arrested for allegedly plotting to kill cops. In Tennessee, a man murdered a Days Inn clerk, shot apparently randomly at some cars, and then fired on the officers who arrived at the scene of the crime; the guy just sounds unhinged to me, but the authorities have "preliminarily" suggested that he was angry about police abuses. We'll see.

In the meantime, we can try to compare the recent violence to the risks that cops ordinarily face. But that raises another issue: Just which risks should we be looking at? Much as arguments about how many mass shootings there are keep turning into battles over how you define "mass shootings" in the first place, the meaning of "war on cops" has a habit of shifting around. Here are five different ways of approaching the issue:

1. How common are violent police deaths? My colleague Ed Krayewski tackled this question last week. You should read his post for the details, but the upshot is that fatal police shootings have been more common this year than last year but are still below where they were half a decade ago. That second comparison is important, because the intervening period includes the two safest years on record for American law enforcement. The long-term trend has been for far fewer officers to be killed on the job, and so far 2016 hasn't been out of line with that.

When you make this argument, it usually provokes two responses. The first is that attacks on police might be increasing without the death count going up. Maybe better medical technology is saving more officers' lives; maybe bullet-proof vests have gotten more effective; maybe this generation of cop-haters can't shoot straight. That brings us to approach number two:

2. How common are all assaults on the police, whether or not the victims die? We do not yet have the data for such assaults in 2016. But police assaults per capita have been falling in recent years, just like cop-killings per capita; the two trends don't march in lockstep, but they've been moving in the same direction. So I'll be surprised if this turns out to be far out of line with measurement #1.

3. How many cop-killers have clear-cut political motives? The second response is more substantive. It argues that the number to focus on isn't how many people kill or try to kill police; it's how many people kill or try to kill police for ideological reasons. Put differently, it says a war on cops would look like the recent shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, not the ones in Michigan and Kansas.

Instantly we run into a problem: We don't always know why someone decided to kill a cop. But before we try to figure out a way around that, let's see what happens if we just look at cases where it's clear that something political was going on. Here's a chart that FiveThirtyEight recently ran, drawing mostly on data from the Global Terrorism Database:


The first thing that jumps out about this image is how low these numbers are. Needless to say, any murder is one too many, but when eight deaths are a huge leap you're in the realm where it's easy to find imaginary patterns in statistical noise. This is especially true when you look at the number of incidents rather than the number of fatalities—that makes the last three years a crooked ramble from five to zero to two. (Or seven to zero to two, if you include a couple of cases in the database where the perps didn't manage to kill anyone.) That isn't a surge; it's a zig-zag.

That long gap without any deaths also raises the question of how we're defining "attacks targeting the police." The database, for example, leaves out the much-discussed 2010 clash where a pair of sovereign citizens shot two cops during a traffic stop in Arkansas. This is presumably because those shooters were reacting in the spur of the moment rather than setting out to shoot someone. (To be included in the Global Terrorism Database, a killing must be "intended to deliver a message to people other than its victims.") I'm guessing that the database will also leave out an incident this year that FiveThirtyEight doesn't mention, in which an officer was shot while trying to evict an Occupy Denver activist who had been refusing to pay his mortgage for political reasons. ("If you give criminals money and you know they are committing crimes," he argued, "you are an accomplice to those crimes.") These exclusions may make sense if you're looking for people specifically targeting the police, but they show how difficult this issue of definitions can be.

But the big problem, again, is that we often don't know why someone decided to kill an officer. If you only look at shooters who announce their motives, you might miss something. And so, as a proxy, people often focus on cops who were killed in ambushes or shot execution-style—methods that suggest a shooter set out to kill a cop.

4. How many police officers are killed in ambushes or shot execution-style? This, of course, leads to the opposite problem, since some of these slayings will be apolitical. When Sgt. Miguel Perez-Rios was murdered in an ambush in Puerto Rico late last year, for example, the motive was probably revenge for past arrests. This isn't unusual: According to a report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, looking at both fatal and nonfatal American ambushes from 1990 to 2012, about one in four of the assailants "have some sort of prior relationship with the officer." Clearly, there will be a lot of false positives here.

But all measurements are imperfect. What does this one show?

Basically, it's not all that different from the last measurement. As of July 20, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 14 police have been killed in ambushes; at the same point last year, the figure was three. That's a big leap in the number of victims, but not in the number of actual incidents—remember, one man acting alone killed five officers in Dallas, and another man killed three in Baton Rouge. So what we're seeing isn't a substantial increase in fatal ambushes; it's a couple of shooters who were more lethally effective than the average cop-killer. (That may reflect the fact that both were veterans, and thus had military training.)

That leaves one last approach:

5. How many police officers are assaulted in ambushes? Not every casualty is fatal. How does the number of officers attacked in ambushes this year stack up against the numbers attacked in previous years if you include the cops who didn't die?

Here I have to give you an unsatisfying answer: I don't know. The FBI posts annual statistics for the number of law enforcement officers killed and assaulted in the line of duty, and that includes a breakdown of how the assaults happened. But right now its assault data only goes as far as 2014. For the record, the number of assaults the FBI classified as "ambush situations" was 167 in 2014, 234 in 2013, 267 in 2012, 212 in 2011, and 248 in 2010. In the longer term, the annual number of ambushes—total, not per capita—dropped dramatically in the early to mid 1990s and has been hovering around the same rough range for the last two decades.

So where does that leave us? Back where we started: with a mass shooting in Dallas, a possible copycat crime in Baton Rouge, a couple of ambiguous cases, and a big fearful fog that has people spotting phantom patterns in the police blotter. A fog, but not necessarily a fog of war.

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  1. Fried and glazed dough has been waging an undeclared war on cops for decades now. As have telephone poles and guardrails.

    1. Fried and glazed amphetamine-coated dough has been waging an undeclared war on cops for decades now.


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  2. Is it something that is actually happening? If yes, then it is not a “war on cops.”

  3. Any time a cop dies (even by his own hand) it is irrefutable evidence of a broad, well-organized War on Cops.

  4. authorities banned syringes from the protest area anyway.


    1. Motherfuckers!

    2. Those who have the sugar are counted as 2/5ths of a person and don’t have the right to free assembly. It’s in the Constitution.

      1. Well, this does actually sort of explain how Hawaii entered the union…

  5. Severe criticism from a tiny minority, mild criticism from a somewhat larger minority, and uncritical adoration from everyone else is not, has never been, and never will be in any shape, form or fashion a war.

  6. How Would You Detect a War on Cops?

    I dunno – how much longer are the Dems going to encourage it?

    1. didnt read the article, did we?

  7. I’ve been listening to Ben Shapiro’s podcast recently (after seeing some of his takedowns on social justice) and he’s been great on the election cycle (and he’s way better at calling out Trump than Reason is in a lot of ways). But then he goes full on War on Cops and I just facepalm. Even if you completely ignore the recent shootings or feel they’re justified, there’s just a constant stream of undue power abuse by police that he’s just completely unwilling to see. I’d love to see him go toe-to-toe with Balko on this.

    1. Balko would leave him ugly-crying in the fetal position.

    2. Police is where conservatism loses its rational abilities.

      Just like the left goes hyper on things like race, the right suspends critical thinking where the cops are concerned.

      The fact they rarely talk about police abuse – which is real and persistent – is problematic.

      1. Add in the military. For all their criticism of how government is dangerous and abuses power, for some reason they think that doesn’t apply to government employees who carry weapons.

        1. The weirdest thing is that the person I know who is the most anti-cop (at least in regards to shootings in the United States) is an Afghanistan vet. And his entire argument rests on the fact that he had to follow complex rules of engagement before he could even fire his weapon at people classified as enemy combatants, while the cops are on a much lower standard for everyday citizens.

    3. Ben Shapiro is a penis.

      1. He’s honestly not bad on constitutional stuff, and he’s argued that the war on drugs is a failure and that at least some substances need to be legalized. That’s good. But then he’ll go on some rant about a John Lennon song or claim that atheists can’t be moral (because they have no parental figure to punishment them of course) and you just wonder how the hell can a guy be so rational when it comes to challenging social justice and then just lose his shit on his own pet issues.

        And the man’s positively ignorant of anything outside the United States. Recently he was talking about the murder of the French priest in the ‘town of Normandy’. Yes Ben, Normandy is a town.

        1. Or he just used the wrong preposition and meant “the town in Normandy”. Or he was speaking in poetic language about “a town of Normandy”. More likely the former.

  8. More importantly, how would you detect a war on the American citizenry? I think I know.

  9. I count the actual assassinations AND assaults of cops as a more important number than those resulting from an actual crime having been committed

    People who were stopped for a traffic incident and they also “just happened” to be armed (where the police were not responding to an actual crime), I also consider. While maybe not terrorism, it certainly does indicate a disrespect to see people shoot police over a traffic ticket

    Deaths of police during an attempted robbery, I doubt I would count unless something excessive evolved or was indicated.

    1. While maybe not terrorism, it certainly does indicate a disrespect to see people shoot police over a traffic ticket

      What does it indicate when someone tosses a grenade into a crib, burns an infant’s face off and then expresses no remorse and suffers no punishment whatsoever?

      1. Protecting and serving, brah!

      2. the subject was terrorism against police, I thought .

        1. Respect is earned.

      3. It indicates due consideration of the totality of the circs, brah.

  10. Exit wounds.

  11. I wouldn’t call it a war on cops unless there was clearly an organized group committed to waging a war on cops. And it’s pretty clear that that isn’t happening. Even if cops were getting murdered every day I wouldn’t call it a war on cops.

    1. “I wouldn’t call it a war on cops unless there was clearly an organized group”

      Why does it have to be an organized group? The fellow who committed the murders in Orlando a couple of weeks ago was alone. That doesn’t diminish from the political nature of his act. We don’t have to call it a war on cops, an overly emotional phrase, I agree. But let’s not try to whitewash the political nature of the attacks on police.

  12. I don’t condone harming police officers.

    BUT, if by “War on Cops” you mean a concerted effort on the part of the citizenry to protest the out of control police state and to hold these government thugs to the same standard as the rest of us…

    I’m all for the “WoC.”

    1. Your words are violence!

    2. More stories like this:


      I bet police abuse of this sort DWARFS anything citizens do towards them making mockery of the notion of a ‘war on police’.

  13. I guess Jesse doesn’t want to be invited to the Police One ball.

  14. the subject was terrorism against police, I thought .

    The police certainly seem to be terrified of the people who pay their salaries.

  15. The ratio of “police shot” relative to the overall murder-rate has hardly changed since 1980

    basically, you’re going to get 8-10 police shot per every 1-per-100,000 of the murder rate.

    I would argue that the only evidence of a “war on cops” would be if that ratio entirely broke free of its association with the actual violent crime-rate.

    iow, if crime declined, but police deaths increased over a sustained period. (say, 5yrs)

  16. conservative on derpbook: That dude at Starbucks refused service to cops. Evidence of broader war on cops. Disgusting.

    Me: That dude at Starbucks violated company policy and was fired. I’ve personally seen cops get free coffee at several Starbucks locations, not sure if that’s national or a store-by-store decision. How is one lone employee acting out on his own, and being punished for it, evidence of a war? Also, even if it were Starbucks’ policy to deny service to cops, how is that evidence of a war? We’re talking about denial of coffee, not threats, physical confrontations or violence.

    conservative on derpbook: There’s a war going on. Shut off MSDNC and open your eyes.

    There is no getting through to some people.

    1. I used to work at a Starbucks, it’s a store-by-store thing. But, naturally, most stores give cops free coffee. Interestingly and not surprisingly at all, there were two fine officers who would come into our store every night around 7:00 and order drinks expecting to get them for free. One night a new guy rang them up. The looks of indignation on their faces were impressive. The shift supervisor quickly smoothed things over and the cops kind of grumbled their way out the door–no “thank you”, nothing.

      A few months later I was in the same situation. I charged those fuckers, and when the shift started to say something I loudly said, “I don’t want them to get into any ethics issues with their department for receiving gifts, I know my dad told me that was a big ‘no-no’ when he was a cop.” Shut ’em right the fuck up.

    2. “There’s a war going on.”

      It’s a form of resistance. Non compliance, non fraternization are both ways that occupied populations resist their occupiers. Refusing to serve coffee to police is an act taken against the police. It’s not violent, but there are lots of precedent for it.

    3. Me on derpbook:

  17. During the Republican National Convention, a rumor circulated that protesters were stabbing cops with syringes.

    Wow, that’s funny. My dad was a deputy sheriff in the 80s and 90s, and I remember that rumor going around then. Cops were actually talking about it as if it were a real epidemic.

  18. “Terrorists are attacking police again”

    I’m sorry, this is a meaningless statistic since “terrorist” is a meaningless term applied selectively to certain types of criminal acts.

    1. “terrorist” is a meaningless term

      Maybe you should consult a dictionary. My guess is that it will tell you that it’s an act of violence directed at civilians for a political purpose.

    2. “terrorist” is a meaningless term applied selectively to certain types of criminal acts.

      That’s not correct at all.

      You might as well say “war” is just well-organized criminal murder as well. But that claim pretends that the nature and degree of ‘organization’ of murderous acts is irrelevant …. and that people whose choose their targets and commit murders on the basis of stated-political-ends rather than personal motivations is irrelevant.

      which its not. I mean, you can claim its irrelevant, but just saying so doesn’t make it so.

      the typical distinction between terrorism and criminal murder is that terrorism is an inherently political act; there’s definitely wiggle room there in the process of defining what’s political and what’s not, but that’s the nature of social phenomena.

  19. There was a recent article detailing the current state of civilizational collapse. It predicted that the recent attacks on cops, both violent as well as verbal abuse on the street, will lead to greater paranoia and caution amongst LEOs. Their tendencies to see threats in citizens will escalate, they will act more out of fear, leading to increased incidents of over reaction and civilian shootings. This will set up a vicious circle, ultimately leading to a true war on law enforcement, with militants targeting homes and families. And thus the end of our current society and something unknown will replace it. The author described this as almost happening in the 60s, but only Federal involvement and placating of militants over civil rights was able to defuse the situation. I for one do not see or trust the Feds to help the situation at all. If anything, POTUS is fanning the flames.

    I wish I had a link to share but can’t find it again. The argument was very compelling.

    I think a number of folks, myself include, see LEOs as flawed, but overall necessary. Yeh, we need to fix the system, but no one wants LEOs to become more prone to overreact. BLM and lefty agitators are messing with fire. Don’t mistake condemnation of BLM and support for LEOs to be mindless adoration.

  20. Here’s a criterion: How many attacks on cops are organized? I can’t remember a single one that involved more than a single nutcase, and I doubt there are any where more than 3 were involved. Lone gumen can’t fight wars — if there’s no organization, there’s no war.

    1. “Here’s a criterion: How many attacks on cops are organized?”

      Doesn’t need to be organized to make a political statement. Orlando shooter, for example. Don’t get caught up with the war thing. It’s only ever-heated rhetoric.

      1. Well, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? Without a war, there’s no War on Cops — just a lot of overblown rhetoric.

        1. “just a lot of overblown rhetoric.”

          … and a few dead cops as well. But let’s ignore them and fixate on the rhetoric.

    2. I can’t remember a single one that involved more than a single nutcase, and I doubt there are any where more than 3 were involved. Lone gumen can’t fight wars — if there’s no organization, there’s no war.

      That’s sort of relevant to the point i make just above.

      And to some arguments which the left has made about “Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism”. This dude @ West Point did a study which has been much quoted by the media which tries to argue that “domestic terror” by the right is just as dangerous as organized Islamic terror.

      If you get into the weeds of the study, however, you find that 90%+ of the incidents described as “right-wing terror” are all single-individuals committing acts that aren’t part of any organized campaign or motivated by any organization, but simply ‘random acts of hate’ – gay bashings, racial crimes, vandalism, etc.

      the distinction which they attempt to fuzzy-up is the point that “Terrorism is by definition “for a political purpose”, and requires some degree of organization & agenda”. They basically dumb-down all violence which may have a potential race/sexual-orientation/religious-motive and call that “right-wing-terror”

      Its muddying definitions for the sake of making misleading arguments.

      1. “Its muddying definitions for the sake of making misleading arguments.”

        and thus the entire Dem platform

      2. “Terrorism is by definition “for a political purpose”, and requires some degree of organization & agenda”.

        A purpose is an agenda. And an act of terror can be perpetrated by an individual without being organized. There are many examples.

  21. JW, how about being fair and showing those statistics side-by-side with the number of complaints about excessive use of force by police (and maybe separately those resulting in death).

    I expect you’ll see that there is a war BY cops ON the public. Especially if you compare the numbers here to those in other Western countries, as Mark Steyn has done.

    German police go on trial for murder every time they shoot someone. I see no reason why ours can’t do the same.

    1. You should spend some time in the courts. That’ll show you plenty of reasons why and how the Kleptocracy guarantees its murderers impunity, or mock trials at best. It’s as if instead of being run as a British colony (with such mock trials), These States have become a Soviet-National Socialist joint venture colony.

  22. What this country needs is another Richard Nixon, more prohibition and no-knock laws, a war napalming children on the other side of the war and a military draft to make sure everyone so enslaved is trained to take revenge if they survive their “tour” Over There. That’ll give them parasitical cop unions something to shriek about.

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