“Cops put their lives on the line every day for you,” said an advertisement for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program. But how risky is police work? (More)

Judging Risk, Part I: “Lives on the Line Every Day”

This week Morning Feature will look at how well we judge risk. Today we begin with claims about the risks of police work, often cited to reject citizen oversight. Tomorrow we’ll consider the risks of terrorism, often cited to justify intrusions on civil liberties. Saturday we’ll conclude with the risks of climate change, and how focusing on those risks affects support for effective change.

“Trusting they’ll be there when the s–t goes down”

We’re often reminded about the risks of police work. An ad for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program read:

Cops put their lives on the line every day for you. Do something for them.

The ad then showed how South Carolinians could designate a portion of their state income tax refunds to go instead to the SCLEAP and related groups.

Former Chicago cop Juan Antonio Juarez used the same language to explain why he adopted the ‘Blue Code of Silence‘ in his 2004 exposé Brotherhood of Corruption:

I also realized that working with the same group of people, day in and day out, period after period, created deep-seated friendships and camaraderie. Cops put their lives on the line every shift; they depend on their partners, trusting they’ll be there when the s–t goes down. Entrusting my life to someone else wasn’t easy, but out of necessity I learned to do it. There was no telling when I’d need another officer’s assistance on the street, in court, or on paper. I also learned that cops help each other out and keep each other’s secrets – it cements trust and strengthens the Department as a whole.

“When a police officer is killed, it’s not an agency that loses an officer, it’s an entire nation.”

So solemnly declares the founder of the Officer Down Memorial Page, which records deaths of law enforcement officers nationwide. And there are many to record. Just last month, a Minneapolis officer was shot and killed during a traffic stop, and last week a police chief was shot and killed in Texas. And on Monday, Agent Geniel Amaro-Fantauzzi died of gunshot wounds received during a narcotics investigation in Puerto Rico.

Indeed the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund documented that 100 officers died in 2013. But that was the fewest of any year since World War II, and 55 of those deaths were caused by accidents or job-related illnesses. Only 31 officers died of gunshot wounds, the fewest in any year since 1887.

And while officer fatalities are higher so far in 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there are 780,000 police officers and detectives in the U.S., and the difference so far this year is below the the statistical mean (156) and standard deviation (22) for officer deaths over the past 20 years. (Note: I excluded the data for 2001, as it was spiked by the 9/11 attacks.)

“The average annual fatality rate is more than 23 times that for all U.S. workers”

From 1980-1989, the law enforcement fatality rate was 24.4 per 100,000 (mean 191). How dangerous is that? Well, consider this data from the Centers for Disease Control:

The National Traumatic Occupational Fatalities (NTOF) Surveillance System indicates that during the period 1980-89, nearly 6,400 U.S. workers died each year from traumatic injuries suffered in the workplace [NIOSH 1993a]. Over this 10-year period, an estimated 1,492 of these deaths occurred in the logging industry, where the average annual fatality rate is more than 23 times that for all U.S. workers (164 deaths per 100,000 workers compared with 7 per 100,000). Most of these logging deaths occurred in four occupational groups: logging occupations (for example, fellers, limbers, buckers, and choker setters), truck drivers, general laborers, and material machine operators. The actual number of loggers who died is higher than reported by NTOF because methods for collecting and reporting data tend to underestimate the total number of deaths [NIOSH 1993b].

In other words, during the 1980s police work was 3.5 times more dangerous than the average for all U.S. workers … but 7 times less dangerous than logging. And while the fatality rate for loggers has fallen to 128 per 100,000 workers in 2012, logging was the most dangerous job in the U.S. that year. The fatality rate for police officers in 2012 was 16 per 100,000 – still above the national average but 8 times less dangerous than logging – and not even in the top-ten most dangerous jobs.

“Well over 95 percent never shoot their weapons here”

Why do we think police work is so dangerous? In part it’s availability bias, our tendency to base estimates of probability on how readily we remember specific examples. If you can easily recall an example, your brain tells you, then that must be a fairly common phenomenon.

And most of us can easily remember an example of a law enforcement officer dying in the line of duty, often in our own hometowns, because those stories are almost always headline news. We hear about the incident and then, usually in the coming days, read or see a tribute to the fallen officer and coverage of the funeral. As well we should.

But those vivid incidents skew our perceptions of risk, as do movies and TV:

In many popular police movies, the heroes shoot their weapons repeatedly and kill one bad guy after another, making for sensational action footage.
[…]
“Well over 95 percent never shoot their weapons here,” said New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir.

Indeed the police, FBI, and prison guard body count in the first season of the Fox series The Following was higher than the number of law enforcement officers killed in 2012. And that was just one season of one (very gruesome) TV series.

“A crutch for bad cops”

Meanwhile, in 2013 there were 29 homicides in Seattle, and 6 of them – over one-fifth – were citizens shot by police. As TechDirt’s Tim Cushing wrote in January:

Efforts have been made over the past several years to make things safer for police officers. The ubiquitous use of bulletproof vests has contributed to this decrease in firearms-related deaths, as has a variety of policies aimed at reducing high-speed chases. But very little effort has been made to decrease the number of people killed by law enforcement. (Notably, Seattle’s police chief attributes the high homicide numbers to not “effectively managing” interactions with people with mental health issues.) Some deaths are nearly impossible to prevent, but there are others where the situation has been allowed to deteriorate far too quickly or a shoot-first mentality has prevailed. The escalating adoption of military equipment and tactics has also contributed to the steady “justifiable homicide” count.

I’m aware that statistical aggregation isn’t the same thing as moment-to-moment reality. Just because you’re less likely to be shot today than at any other time in the past 100+ years doesn’t mean today isn’t your day. But the narrative push by officers to present their job as persistently deadly doesn’t jibe with the death totals. The First Rule of Policing (“get home safe”) is a crutch for bad cops. Cops are getting home safe now more than ever. It’s those on the other side of the blue line that haven’t seen their chances improve.

The tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere last month highlighted the need for citizen oversight of law enforcement, and we shouldn’t accept “they put their lives on the line every day” as an excuse.

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Happy Thursday!