There's a new narrative out there -- one that's being repeated by campaigning politicians and buttressed by fearful news reports. Apparently, the public has declared war on law enforcement. Each shooting of a police officer is presented as evidence that it's open season on cops. Officers aren't simply killed. They're "targeted." The problem is, the stats don't back this up.
Radley Balko has posted a very thorough examination of actual statistics pertaining to officers killed (or assaulted) in the line of duty, and there's not a single stat that agrees with these assertions.
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:
No matter how you choose to slice the stats, none of them add up to a spike in murdered police officers. But you can
cherry pick a number to make it seem worse than it actually is, like many pushing this point of view have.
[W]hen 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.
On the other hand, the killing of citizens by cops remains pretty much unchanged. Statistics are hard to come by, considering the FBI and DOJ haven't exactly been on top of collecting this data. Crowd-sourced information puts this year's killings at 817
as of September 13th. Last year, 1106 members of the public
were killed by police officers. From May-December of 2013, 768 people were killed
. And yet, there is no War on the Public or at least nothing that has been formally declared by pundits and politicians.
By espousing this narrative of increased unchecked aggression against police officers, those making these claims are making things even more dangerous for citizens and
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.
This would be a problem even if the narrative were true. But it's much worse when the assertion is provably false.
What is true, however, is that the public's respect of law enforcement is eroding. In some communities, this trust was never there. Recent events like the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO
and Eric Garner
in New York City (along with Freddie Gray
in Baltimore, etc.) have brought this to the surface.
A Gallup poll notes that current confidence in law enforcement has tied a 22-year low
, with just 52% of the population stating they trust police officers. But the variations are small across the last two decades, maxing out at only 64%. Minority groups have experienced the lowest amount of overall change, largely because many have never
trusted law enforcement.
The distrust seems more significant now because the public has far more outlets to express their displeasure. Twenty-two years ago, it would have been left to the odd protest and letters to editor. Now, it's everywhere, all the time. No wonder cops feels they're under fire. They've never had to deal with this level of pervasive criticism.
But for all the anger directed at law enforcement, there's been no spike in violence against police officers. This misconception stems from the same source: multiple expressive outlets for police officers and those who support them -- far more than have ever been available to the public historically. Additional criticism coming from unexpected sources -- prosecutors and politicians -- has caught law enforcement by surprise. They've been cut a lot of slack over the years but they're now finally seeing a bit of tension in their leads. This doesn't make their job any easier and it leads to additional resentment. But officers can't take it out on those up top, so it's everyone else on the bottom that pays the price.
So, a perceived
war on cops will continue to be met with an unofficial war on the public. And, because we'll be able to witness more of this unofficial war, thanks to everyone (including police officers) wielding cameras, the public's faith in its public servants will continue to erode. Rather than being a source of strength in their communities, cops are now acting like victims. In this mindset, anything less than full, polite compliance will more frequently be greeted with shows of force, setting everyone up for a spin on the vicious cycle.