Despite Politicized Claims, On-Duty Officer Deaths are Declining

Lately, media outlets and politicians have made claims that demands by activists for greater police accountability and reform are generating a climate of hostility towards nation’s police force. This hostility is manifesting itself greater levels of violence aimed at police officers and more police deaths.

In the last six years under President Obama, we’ve seen a rise in anti-police rhetoric.” Claimed Gov. Scott Walker in a blog post published earlier this month. “Instead of hope and change, we’ve seen racial tensions worsen and a tendency to use law enforcement as a scapegoat…This inflammatory and disgusting rhetoric has real consequences for the safety of officers who put their lives on the line for us and hampers their ability to serve the communities that need their help.”

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz shared similar sentimentsThey’re feeling the assault from the president, from the top on down as we see, whether it’s in Ferguson or Baltimore, the response of senior officials of the president, of the attorney general, is to vilify law enforcement. That is fundamentally wrong, and it is endangering the safety and security of us all.”

The only problems with these claims, of course, is that they appear to be entirely wrong. In fact, the data clearly states that the exact opposite is true. A police officer today has a much lower likelihood of being killed in the line of duty than they have at any point in the past 55 years.

Data collected from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund indicates that there were 117 fatalities for on-duty police officers in 2014. That’s the second lowest fatality total since 1960. The graph below is simply the annual deaths of on-duty officers — there is a clear downward trend with a significant spike in 2001 due to 9/11.

total deaths

Source: Data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund

But now, take into account that our population has grown by 105 million people since the mid-70s — which represents the peak of police officer casualties. In 1974, just over 13 officers per 10 million residents were killed on-duty. Today, that rate is just under four per 10 million — a 72 percent decline.

total deaths pop

Source: Data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund & Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

More recently, while there are a few months left in 2015, NLEOMF states that the first half of this year has been consistent with the overall downward trend.

Also interesting to note is that not only is being a law enforcement officer becoming safer, it’s also much more safe than many other common civilian occupations like, truck driver or roofer. It’s actually not even in the top ten most dangerous occupations. Granted, these aren’t occupations where people are explicitly at risk of intentional violence or assault, but if you’re purely concerned about whether or not you or your loved one will come home at the end of the day, the comparison is reasonable.

Police officers perform a very important duty — engaging with community members, enforcing our laws and putting themselves directly into harm’s way at a moment’s notice. Hardly a trivial endeavor and one worthy of praise and appreciation.

But what is un-praiseworthy is to use the deaths and violence perpetrated on law enforcement officers to maintain a climate of fear and tension. Calls for accountability and efforts to engage in conversations about racism and policing are not exercises in anti-police rhetoric. Politicians and pundits who make this claim are wrong and seek only to stifle social progress for political gain.

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7 comments

  1. Very interesting article, thank you. Also, not undermining police injuries and fatalities, but the fact that the US police still does not treat blacks and other minorities like human beings is by far the greater tragedy – a total mystery to most of us outside the US.

    Sadly, I suspect for some Americans, just one police death per year, or even decade, would be sufficient pretext to keep perpetrating their biased rhetoric. To me, the whole mentality is best summed up by that deplorable “Blue Lives Matter” slogan – as if some kind of retaliation was needed against people pursuing their basic civil rights. It seems to go with a sense that blacks should feel at least partly to blame for the oppression and lack of opportunity they still suffer in America.

  2. Excellent article. I also resent the rhetoric from some politicians opposing greater accountability for police officers. Body cams and the like are beneficial to police as well as citizens, and I’ve never understood the blind opposition to measures such as those.

    1. Same. Although I think part of the fear comes from this bizarre notion that a police cam could potentially serve as a hindrance to the officer. Such that if an officer needs to make a decision at a moments notice, she/he might hesitate — and that hesitation may cost them their life. Which is ironic considering that lack of hesitation is what’s murdering innocent black and brown people in this country on a regular basis.

      And maybe there’s also a fear that body cameras will only work to uncover more wrongdoing and provide ammunition for additional social change and accountability.

      1. Exactly. These officers could definitely use some more hesitation. Maybe Tamir Rice would still be alive today if they had. I think that as police officers they don’t have the same expectation of privacy as a civilian, in terms of being recorded all of the time. The bottom line is that if they are innocent of any wrongdoing, they should have no qualms about wearing a bodycam.

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