On-Duty Police Deaths Were Near a 50-Year Low in 2017

By: Ryan McMaken

The number of policy officers killed on duty dropped to near a 50-year low in 2017. As of December 28, 2017, 128 officers died in the line of duty. That’s down 10% from 2016, when 143 officers died, according to new data from National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

The only other year with fewer deaths in the past five decades was 2013, when 116 officers were killed. 

These deaths should not all be interpreted as the result of attacks from members of the public. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of police-officer deaths, although shootings play a significant role. 

Although we continue to hear complaints from police labor unions, government institutions, and their allies, there is no evidence to support the claim. 

As Tate Fegley noted in October, the most recent data continues a decades-long trend:

[T]here has been a downward trend in officer deaths over the last few decades. In 2016, the number of police officers killed by gunfire was less than half of what it was in the early seventies. Contrary to the narrative of there being a war on cops, rather than a series of isolated incidents of violence against police officers, the number of officers being killed is going down while the number of people employed as police officers goes up.

Since we are dealing with such small numbers, of course, it is impossible to claim that this year’s drop to the second-lowest in 50 years represents any sort of new trend. It would only take an additional 10 shooting deaths to significantly change the trend.

Nevertheless policing overall is becoming statistically safer. 

But to what should we attribute this trend?

According to USA Today, it is at least partly attributable to “officer safety”: 

“In my 33 years doing this, I’ve never seen the amount of awareness given to officer safety and wellness,” [Craig Floyd, president and chief executive of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund] said. “That’s definitely been paying off and will continue to help make law enforcement a significantly safer profession.”

Meanwhile, “The number of people killed by officers increased slightly from 963 in 2016 to 971 this year, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.” In other words, in recent years, more than seven times as many people are killed by police, than police die on duty from all causes, including accidents. 

“Officer safety,” of course, is not exactly a non-controversial term. Often, in the wake of police shootings of unarmed citizens, we hear that training related to “officer safety” has trained officers to shoot at the first sign of a possible threat.

The Atlantic explains:

Police training starts in the academy, where the concept of officer safety is so heavily emphasized that it takes on almost religious significance. Rookie officers are taught what is widely known as the “first rule of law enforcement”: An officer’s overriding goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift. But cops live in a hostile world. They learn that every encounter, every individual is a potential threat. They always have to be on their guard because, as cops often say, “complacency kills.” … So officers are trained to shoot before a threat is fully realized, to not wait until the last minute because the last minute may be too late.

This incentive to shoot first is peculiar to the public sector because it is enabled by “sovereign immunity” laws that make it more difficult for private citizens to sue government agents and agencies for damages. Federal Courts have also made it clear that police agencies are not required to protect citizens from threats. “Law enforcement” and not “citizen safety” is the purpose of government police agencies. If police agencies themselves are already shielded from legal sanction for any lack of action, why accept a high level of risk?  

Private Security Is More Dangerous

Meanwhile, there are many people who put their lives on the line to protect life and property, but don’t enjoy any sort of legal immunity. 

They also have a more dangerous job than government police. These are the people who work in private security. 

Private Officer International (POI) has started keeping track of private security officer deaths on duty, concentrating mostly on so-called “feloniously killed” officers. That means they’ve been shot, stabbed, run over, run down, beaten to death, pushed off buildings and so on. According to POI, 112 private security officers were killed last year [2012], whereas (according to the FBI’s own statistics), 72 police officers suffered the same fate in the same period. 

Given the most police-officer deaths are from traffic accidents, this statistic attempts to identify deaths resulting from attacks by persons. When we make this comparison, we do indeed find that private security is at greater risk.

Using similar numbers, William Norman Grigg also points out: 

During the same fifteen-year-period in which roughly 700 police officers weren’t able to make the end-of-shift phone call, at least 1863 private security officers were killed while carrying out a contractual commitment to protect others against criminal violence. 

Nor is this any insignificant matter. There are more private guards, detectives, and other security personnel than those employed by state, local, and federal agencies combined. 

It’s also important to note that private security is engaged in addressing real crime, such as robbery, theft, assault, and other violence. Government police, on the other hand, spend an enormous amount of time trying to nab small-time marijuana growers and other non-violent “criminals.” 

Although advocates for a greater private-sector role in policing are often denounced as “unrealistic” or as in denial about the “bad guys” who are out there, those who keep track of the real threats taken on by private security are anything but naive. The protection of life and property has always been a necessary service in society. The question remains, however, whether or not government police agencies are doing the work appropriately. 

After all, if police really wanted to enhance officer safety, they’d push for an end to the War on Drugs, which turns every minor traffic stop into a potentially deadly situation. When police become engaged more in searching private citizens and seizing private property — rather than in recovering stolen property or tracking down violent criminals — then each police interaction becomes a fearful experience for people who fear arrest an imprisonment for any of the countless non-violent “crimes” that can bring stiff fines and jail terms. Officer safety could be enhanced by pursuing laws and policies that create a more clear connection between police work and suppressing real violent crime. This would create a more helpful, less fearful public, and a police force more focused on real crime. Given how the War on Drugs is extremely lucrative for government police agencies, however, this is unlikely to happen. 

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