We all know that policing is a dangerous occupation. It seems more so recently. But it’s a danger that’s hard to quantify. If you try to look up the most dangerous jobs in America, you’ll no doubt have to scroll a bit before you see police officer. Most of these rankings tend to use total on the job deaths, or in an attempt at the scientific method, total on the job deaths weighed against total employees. Either way you look at it, police typically make the list, but nowhere near the top. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, 133 officers died on-duty last year, and again when weighed against the nearly one million sworn officers in America, that makes for pretty good odds for guys like me.
The conclusion drawn from these comparisons and lists is inevitably that policing is not as dangerous as it’s cracked up to be.
The number of officers currently working is confounded however, and difficult to nail down; I’ve seen estimates for total officers from 600,000 to more than 900,000. And how many of those actually wear a uniform and patrol a beat everyday? Two-thirds? Half? Probably less. The number of officers who are actually in harm’s way on a somewhat regular basis is but a fraction of those who have sworn in.
In a further attempt to prove that police are just whining about having a mythically dangerous job, professional anti-police rhetoricians like to compare the number of officers killed on duty to the number of people killed by on-duty police. They claim 500, 1000, even 1500 people are killed by police every year, a number often purposefully inflated to support their point and includes anyone who died within a nebulous and ill-defined time-proximity to police contact. Think Freddie Gray who it seems may have mortally wounded himself in a desperate attempt to earn a sizeable settlement while unattended (and unrestrained, let that be a lesson for us all) in the back of a transport vehicle. Also think Sandra Bland, who killed herself after being booked into jail and at the time had no police contact.
I’ve seen people claim that ten or more years ago the total killed by police was as little as 10 or 15, thereby concluding that the police slayings are a recent and ballooning phenomenon; 900,000 murderers careening out of control. The fact is that the FBI typically publishes data regarding police homicides and has concluded that even ten years, the total has remained relatively constant at around 400-500 per year. Indeed the average persons killed by officers between 1968 and 1975 was 483 (This according to study research by Dr Darrell Ross of Valdosta State University, I could not find the original study but an article Dr Ross was involved with about the study can be found here). Still when compared with the 100-150 officers who die in the line of duty every year 500 persons killed at the hands of officers seems… well, unfair.
Injury vs. murder
Of the 133 officers who died last year, 51 (38%) were murdered. (I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that one was murdered by an unarmed assailant, and another was murdered with his own weapon). Let’s remember that many of the persons killed by police had already made victims of other innocents which is the cause for police attention in the first place. It is incorrect to assume that these numbers show 550 contests between police and citizens of which police were the victors 500 times. In many cases the offenders have already robbed, raped, murdered and left victims in their wake before they are stopped by the police.
Regardless, virtually every on-the-job death in America, without respect to occupation, is entirely accidental. And that’s where the law enforcement occupation differs. A full 38% of on the job deaths suffered by police were due to murder. That’s a distinction that no other profession can claim. This wasn’t a mechanical failure, or someone skipping a safety procedure. These 51 officers didn’t trip and fall overboard or suffer an untimely stroke; and while police officers are subject to such incidental circumstances just as anyone else, here that is not the case. These officers were brutally, feloniously attacked and violently and intentionally killed by another person.
Now consider that the FBI also maintains statistics, albeit incomplete ones, regarding assaults on police officers. This number, as I’m sure you can imagine, tends to be quite high. Now one of the first things taught in the academy is that every contact an officer makes, every scene he or she is on, every one involves a gun. The one on the officer’s hip. An important point to make considering the number of officers killed with their own weapons, including the one last year. Additionally, the act of feloniously assaulting a police officer by itself is a major escalation. Statistics, criminal interviews, and even case-law maintain that there is a huge difference between a subject using force to resist or escape an officer, and one who uses force in an active attack on an officer. History has shown that when someone attacks an officer his or her goal is only to end that officer’s life. Given these factors, it is legal, ethical, and necessary for an officer to assume during an attack that his or her life is in danger and this is in fact a lethal force encounter.
Understanding that potentially every attack on an officer is a lethal one is important when considering the 49,851 documented assaults on officers in 2013 and 48,315 in 2014 (www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/leoka). (This number is an incomplete one as not all LE agencies report these stats to the FBI). This means there could have been 49,851 offenders killed by police in 2013, 48,315 in 2014.
Obviously that’s not the case so what does this mean? The FBI doesn’t maintain statistics on when officers don’t use force, which is the only useful statistic to compare when trying to determine if excessive force is as pervasive as many claim. They do estimate that of all contacts made by police, generally 1.6% involve the threat or use of force, which means the rate of use of force is actually lower, I’d wager significantly lower; and at the very least that means 98.4% of all contacts involve no force at all. In my experience it’s less than a tenth of one percent of my contacts result in force. A weak point of this study is that much of it relies on citizen survey responses, who have a much different understanding of force than officers. I remember one person I interacted with complained of “excessive force” because I told him to shut up while he was interjecting himself in a felony stop. None of the persons actually involved in the stop complained.
Hands up, won’t shoot
Now what about shootings? We can survey various sources estimating killings by police and shootings by police that don’t end in death but that’s only part of the picture. The above statistics indicate that there are potentially 49,851 additional murderers in these United States, and if someone thinks of trying to kill a police officer as simply taking advantage of an opportunity, they certainly won’t have any qualms about killing the neighbor down the street when he or she resists a bit too much during a robbery. It’s very likely in these cases that their lives were saved by the actions of their targeted victims. I propose the reason we don’t see tens of thousands of people killed by police every year, in spite of the fact that tens of thousands of people try to kill police every year, can be directly be attributed to the officers themselves.
No one becomes a police officer because they have hate in their hearts, because they harbor malice in their souls. Being a police officer is certainly not a lucrative prospect, especially with respect to the risks. We are police officers as a direct result of two factors we all share, the deeply held desire to keep our people safe, and the intestinal fortitude to see it through. The effect is that many persons who could have or even should have been shot and killed by police are not.
There are few official studies regarding this phenomenon, but I know of one that describes a rate of officers who choose not to fire their weapons in situations in which it would have been legally justified. The results are based on survey responses from a sample of 295 officers averaging 17 years of law enforcement experience. These participants reported that as a group they had been involved in 4,696 critical incidents. They reported that as a group they chose to fire their weapons 87 times, but chose not to fire during an encounter where deadly force was a legal option 1,102 times. This very closely matches my own experience regarding the issue, there are many times that I could have fired my weapon and been legally justified, but I chose not to. If you look closely you’ll see the comparison is just about 7.3% of the time that officers could fire their weapons, they do. This, I think is huge and clearly shows the preposterous nature of claims that officers are bloodthirsty barbarians just looking for an excuse, and needs to be a focus for future research.
So it goes
Now imagine that this assault and murder rate of officers wasn’t unique, that it did actually occur elsewhere. Imagine the Teamster’s Union response if their members’ were suddenly being stalked and attacked by thousands of criminals for no other reason than their affiliation. Imagine watching The Deadliest Catch and seeing the young men who brave the sea die more than 50% more often at the hands of felons. Surely the ratings would skyrocket, but do you think they’ll shrug their shoulders and say “that’s how it goes, crabbing on the Bering Sea”? Imagine working in an office as a sales rep where a large proportion of your customers are violent criminals, many of whom want you dead and have murdered more than fifty of your coworkers. Would this just be accepted as part of the job? Not only do officers not have the privilege of choosing our customers, but we’re required by law to engage amicably with murderers, thieves, rapists, and child molesters just as we would anyone else.
This is something that every police officer in America understands, but rarely speaks of. Any one of the dozens of people I meet everyday may want to kill me. And it only takes one to try. But in this event, I am well-equipped. I have years of training, years of experience. I have weapons, I have armor. I, as do all officers, have many significant advantages over the average assailant. Police officers are smarter, faster, stronger, more accurate. We are in better shape and we train regularly. In mortal combat fairness is asinine, this is our advantage.
The criminals have a serious advantage as well. They have no rules.
While I have to reasonably identify a serious threat before applying force, the criminal has no such criteria. The criminal has no concern for public opinion, no fear of lawsuit or risk to livelihood, no check boxes to mark, no red-tape to clear before pulling the trigger.
And yet in the face of this, we win. Police win, as you can plainly see, far more often than we lose. When they come for us, we beat them. For that we are envied, for that we are hated.
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