Good News: Fewer Police Being Killed

Despite the hysteria you have seen in the news, there are actually fewer police being killed.

I had seen the analysis elsewhere, but most recently Radley Balko wrote about the issue at the Washington Post. The first thing you might feel is confusion if you have heard reports of more police being killed. After declaring that 2015 “is shaping up to be the second safest year for police ever, after 2013,” Balko explains:

Speaking of which, it’s important to note again here that 2013 was an abnormally and historically low year for police fatalities, as this graph from University of South Carolina law professor (and former police officer) Seth Stoughton shows.

So when police advocates say that 2014 saw an 80+ percent increase in homicides of cops over 2013, remember a few things: First, 2013 wasn’t just an all-time low, it was an all-time low by a significant margin. Second, the 2013 figure was so low that even a small increase will look large when expressed as a percentage. Third, the figure for the following year, 2014, (51 officers killed) was essentially consistent with the average for the previous five years (50 killed), and still lower than any five-year average going back to 1960. (See this graph, also from Wang.) Fourth, again, 2015 is on pace (35 killings) to be lower than any year but 2013. Another common response from police organizations and their advocates is that the reduction in fatalities is due to better medical care and improvements in protective gear such as bulletproof vests. Both things are undoubtedly true. But assaults on police officers are in decline as well. That is, not only are fewer people killing police officers, fewer people are trying to harm them. 

Does this make all anxiety about assaults on police completely irrational? Of course not! Just like we all remember the attacks of 9-11 even though very few Americans die in terrorist attacks compared to other ways of getting killed, so we have a reason to worry about violent rhetoric and poisonous ideas that justify attacks on officers.

But that anxiety must not allow us to be deceived. Balko shows a lot of evidence that violence against police has been going down over the decades. It peaked during the Prohibition era.

We need to be able to have a rational discussion about both violence against police, and police accountability. Many media sources are sounding the alarm about a “war on police” that doesn’t exist. That false information makes rational thought and conversation impossible. A mythical “war on police” provides a false defense of the militarization of the police.

Furthermore, police already have a hard enough job without being brainwashed into believing that they are the targets of a “war.” That sets them up to be extraordinarily defensive beyond what the facts warrant. The relationship between the police and the community should not be subverted by falsehoods.

Finally, this blog has covered many stories about allegations of police violence and violations of basic rights. Some of these allegations we’ve found highly questionable. Others are much more convincing. Furthermore, many have no racial component at all! Yet somehow, the media has managed to trumpet some of the most spectacularly questionable cases and also manage to make race the main issue. The much more credible allegations often simply disappear from the news cycle.

It seems to me that the media is somehow more interested in creating racial animosity than it is in addressing real concerns. By emphasizing the most questionable cases, and treating them as serious allegations against police, the media alienates police and others.

No good can come of this.