Here’s Fox News earlier this week, shamelessly exploiting a tragedy to gin up outrage.
They certainly aren’t the only ones. Here are some more examples of media outlets and politicians spreading the hysteria:
“War On Police Sparks National Crime Wave”
“Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick: There’s A War On Cops And Media ‘Are Not In Police Officers’ Corner’”
“Police face recruiting shortage due to war on cops”
“Do Cops’ Lives Matter to Obama?”
“[New York Police Chief] Bratton warns of tough times ahead due to ‘war on cops’”
As I’ve noted here before, we’re seeing similar rhetoric from politicians, particularly from GOP presidential hopefuls, including Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Scott Walker.
All of this fact-free fearmongering is having an effect. A Rasmussen poll taken last week found that 58 percent of respondents now believe there is now a “war on police.” Just 27 percent disagreed.
So let’s go through the numbers. Again. So far, 2015 is on pace to see 35 felonious killings of police officers. If that pace holds, this year would end with the second lowest number of murdered cops in decades. Here’s a graph depicting annual killings of cops with firearms from Mark A. Perry at the American Enterprise Institute:
But these are just the raw numbers. If we look at the rate of killings of cops, the trend is more pronounced. There are two ways examine the rate of police killings. The first is to look at the rate of killings of cops per 100K cops on the street. This figure is somewhat difficult to calculate because there are widely varying estimates of how many cops are on the street. It depends on how you define “police officer,” who is doing the estimating, and various other factors. But if you use consistent sources, the number of police has generally gone up, while the number of officers killed has generally gone down. So your graph looks something like this one, from Dan Wang:
The other way you could measure the rate of killings of police officers is to look at the number with respect to the overall population. Here’s another graph from Perry that plots those figures:
As you can see, by this measure 2015 is shaping up to be the second safest year for police ever, after 2013.
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. These graphs from Stoughton show the raw numbers of assaults on police:
As you can see, at best you could argue that assaults on police with firearms are about even with where they’ve been for most of the last decade, save for a dip in 2009 and 2010. But these too are raw figures. When we look at the rate of assault on cops, from either the perspective of total cops or total population, the downward trend once again becomes more pronounced. From Daniel Bier, here are two graphs looking at the assault rates on police officers.
Any murder of a police officer is a tragedy. (As is any murder of a non-police officer.) But media outlets, politicians, and police advocates do real damage when they push this false narrative about a rising threat to law enforcement. First, this sort of propaganda weights the public debate and discourse. When there’s a fictional “war on cops” blaring in the background, it becomes much more difficult to have an honest discussion about police cameras, police militarization, use of lethal force policies, police discipline, police transparency, training, police accountability, and a host of other issues. Of course, that’s precisely the point.
But there’s also a much more pernicious effect of exaggerating the threats faced by law enforcement. When cops are constantly told that they’re under constant fire, or that every interaction with a citizen could be their last, or that they’re fortunate each time they come home from the job in one piece, it’s absolute poison for police-community relations. That kind of reminder on a regular basis would put anyone on edge. We’re putting police officers in a perpetually combative mindset that psychologically isolates them from the communities they serve. Incessantly telling cops that they’re under fire can condition them to see the people with whom they interact not as citizens with rights, but as potential threats. That not only means more animosity, anger and confrontation, it can also be a barrier to building relationships with people in the community — the sorts of relationships that help police officers solve crimes and keep communities safe.
It also just makes for a miserable work life. If you’ve been trained to think your job is getting progressively more dangerous, and that a significant percentage of the people you encounter on a daily basis want to do you harm, you’re going to be less tolerant of dissent. You’re going to constantly be on-guard, on-edge, and jumpy. That isn’t a state of mind that’s conducive to de-escalation, that opts for persuasion over brute force, or seeks out peaceful conflict resolution. It’s a state of mind ruled by the limbic system, not the frontal lobe. And yes, it’s a state of mind that makes an officer more likely to reach for his gun. Again, this isn’t a comment on cops. It’s a comment on human beings in general.
An over-emphasis on and obsession with a “war on cops” would be dangerous and counterproductive even if it were true. But by every imaginable measure, it just isn’t true. When this false narrative comes from police organizations and their supporters, it’s at least somewhat understandable. When it comes from politicians, it’s grandstanding and demagoguery. When it comes from media organizations, it’s journalistic malpractice. And it’s almost certainly getting people killed.
One last point: I’ve seen some police officials and their advocates respond to these statistics by pointing out that even if assaults and killings of cops are down, anti-police rhetoric is increasing. Therefore, they say, they’re justified in proclaiming that there’s a war on the police. This is nonsense. Police agencies are government agencies. They’re government agencies in whom we entrust the power to detain, arrest, and kill. Yes, it’s true that some people are demanding more of those agencies. It’s true that personal technology is enabling people to create an independent video narrative of their interactions with police. It’s true that those videos have sometimes revealed police misconduct and brutality, and that police officers, like all people, sometimes mis-remember, misstate, and outright lie when recounting contentious, traumatic, high-stakes incidents. And it’s true that because of all of this, the public as a whole today finds police officers as a whole less trustworthy than in the past. It’s also true that some activists, pundits, and politicians are demanding more accountability, transparency, and training for police.
None of these things are indicative of a “war.” On the contrary, all of this new skepticism, criticism, forced transparency, and mistrust of the police is — again — coming even as violence against police officers is reaching historic lows. This is how a democracy is supposed to work. It’s something worth celebrating.
Instead, police groups and their advocates are claiming that the mere act of criticizing a government entity is akin to declaring war on it, and that therefore, police critics are culpable every time a police officer is murdered. (And given the way they ignore and abuse statistics, those critics are also apparently culpable for a lot of murders that never happened.) They’re essentially saying that exercising constitutional rights and participating in democracy are in and of themselves acts of violence. And in many cases, this is coming from the very people that the government empowers to use actual violence.
That is something worth worrying about.
Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.”