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Is there a “war on police” in America today? Most Americans think so, and that’s understandable given all of the media coverage of that topic. A Google news search finds 32,000 results for the phrase “war on cops” and another 12,100 results for “war on police,” with sensational headlines like “America’s War on Cops Intensifies” and [NYPD Commissioner] “Bratton Warns of Tough Times Ahead Due to ‘War on Cops’.” A recent Rasmussen poll found that 58% of likely US voters answered “Yes” to the question “Is there a war on police in America today?” and only 27% disagreed. But data on police shootings in America that were reported last week by The Guardian (“2015 May Be One of the Safest Years for Law Enforcement in a Quarter Century“) tell a much different story of increasing police safety.
According to data available from the “Officer Down Memorial Page” on the annual number of non-accidental, firearm-related police fatalities, 2015 is on track to be the safest year for law enforcement in the US since 1887 (except for a slightly safer year in 2013), more than 125 years ago (see top chart above). And adjusted for the country’s growing population, the years 2013 and 2015 will be the two safest years for police in US history (see bottom chart above), measured by the annual number of firearm-related police fatalities per 1 million people.
The two charts above reveal a picture of increasing police safety in the US that is much different than the narrative we hear all the time in the media about a “war on cops” and increasing risks of death for America’s law enforcement. From a peak of more than 100 police shootings in every year between 1969 to 1980 (except for 1977 when there were 97 deaths), firearm-related police fatalities have been on a downward trend for the last 35 years, falling to only 31 in 2013 and now on track to reach 35 by the end of this year (based on 24 police deaths during the first 251 days of 2015). We can see the same downward trend in annual firearm-related police deaths adjusted for the size of the US population (bottom chart), which will make 2013 and 2015 the two safest years for law enforcement in US history.
Here’s an excerpt from The Guardian article:
Despite urgent warnings from police and others about a “war on cops” allegedly linked to the Black Lives Matter protest movement, statistics show 2015 is in fact shaping up to be one of the safest years for law enforcement in a generation.
According to the Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP), which keeps data on officer deaths going back over 100 years, 24 officers have been shot and killed by suspects this year. This puts the US on pace for 36 non-accidental, firearm-related police fatalities in 2015 [I calculate 35 deaths in 2015 based on 24 during the first 251 days this year]. Each one of such deaths is a tragedy for the officers killed, their families and the communities they serve, but this would be the lowest total in 25 years [ more than 125 years according to the ODMP website] aside from 2013 which saw 31 such deaths.
According to a recent Rasmussen poll, 58% of likely voters believe there is a “war on police” in America today. The same poll found that 60% believe “comments critical of the police by some politicians make it more dangerous for police officers to do their jobs.” But misinformation also abounds.
In response to the recent Fox Lake [Illinois] shooting, state representative Barbara Wheeler, whose district includes the small Illinois town, issued a statement that said: “Eleven police officers have needlessly lost their lives since August 20 alone in America because of shootings.” The statistic, which was then quoted by several media outlets, appears to be untrue. According to ODMP, that number is actually four.
A few observations:
1. The possibly exaggerated narrative of increasing risk for US law enforcement has been one of the justifications used for the increasing militarization of America’s law enforcement, as documented in Radley Balko’s 2014 book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (see also the Wikipedia entry “Militarization of Police“). Of course, supporters of the militarization of law enforcement could point to the downward trend in gun-related police deaths as evidence that it is the increasing use of paramilitary tactics that have contributed to the reduction in police deaths, and they would possibly have a point. But the downward trend in the annual number of firearm-related police fatalities for more than a quarter century does seem to run counter to the perceptions of the public and media that it’s more dangerous today for American’s police officers than ever before.
Update: See Daniel Bier’s related article “Overkill: Militarizing America: Why are police arming for war in a time of relative safety?”
2. The data for police deaths in the charts above also reveal that the most dangerous period in American history, by far, for law enforcement was during America’s “War on Alcohol” (aka Prohibition) from 1920-1933, when more than 2,500 police officers were killed by firearms. And it’s possible that the current War on Drugs that was declared in 1971 by President Nixon when he named drug abuse as “public enemy number one in the United States” may have contributed to the increase in police deaths during the following decade when more than 1,300 police officers were shot and killed. And to the extent that there is a “war on cops” today, that war could be significantly reduced by ending America’s longest, deadliest, most senseless and most expensive war – the “War on
Drugs Otherwise Peaceful Americans Who Choose to Ingest Plants, Weeds and Intoxicants Currently Proscribed Arbitrarily by the US Government.”
3. Most importantly, despite all of the sensational (but exaggerated) media hype, and despite the overwhelming (but false) public opinion, there really is no “war on cops” in America today (see Nick Gillespie’s recent, related and excellent article (“There is no ‘War on Cops'”; There is a Long-Overdue Conversation About Police Brutality“). As the data in the charts above show, there’s never been a time in US history when it’s been safer to be a US police officer than it is today.
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