Is Militarization Rational? How Dangerous Is It to be a Police Officer in the U.S.A.?

This blog has addressed questions about the militarization of the police for a long time. One part of the issue is whether it is warranted by the risks of being a cop. Back when I wrote about two people getting gunned down by multiple police, I asked about how much danger police officers really face. I found a website that put them on the bottom of a top ten most dangerous jobs list, but only for 2010. Usually they don’t make the list. (Roofers, by the way, bravely put their lives on the line every day.)

The Freeman is now addressing the same question: “By the Numbers: How Dangerous Is It to Be a Cop?” It shows that police don’t even make the top ten list any more. The article provides a neat graph showing how many are killed in the line of duty.

20140818_policegraph

Defenders of police militarization such as that on display in Ferguson, Missouri, often claim that it’s necessary to provide military gear to cops, given how dangerous law enforcement has become.

Indeed, in the name of the War on Terror and theWar on Drugs, the federal government has provided thousands of pieces of military-grade body armor, mine-resistant armored personnel carriers, assault rifles, grenade launchers, helicopters, and night-vision goggles to local police and sheriffs. Almost every county in America has received equipment from these programs.

But has policing really become so dangerous that we need to arm peace officers like an invading army? The answer is no. It’s never been safer to be a cop.

To start with, few police officers die in the line of duty. Since 1900, only 18,781 police officers have died from any work-related injury. That’s an average of 164 a year. In absolute terms, officer fatalities peaked in 1930 (during alcohol prohibition) at 297, spiking again in the 1970s before steadily declining since.

If you look at police fatalities adjusted for the U.S. population, the decline is even starker. 2013 was the safest year for American policing since 1875.

Notice that the trend line starts way in advance of the militarization of the police. So you can’t argue that getting armored personnel carriers, or—more importantly—being trained as if you are a soldier rather than a civilian serving the public, is the reason for the decline in deaths.