Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Just how dangerous is police work?

There is a just-released report by The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund that states that 160 federal, state and local law enforcement officers have died in 2010, up from 117 in 2009. “A more brazen, cold-blooded criminal element is on the prowl in America, and they don’t think twice about killing a cop,” is to blame for this increase. Actually, 2009 was an anomaly; in 2007, 179 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty. The NLEOMF takes meticulous care in defining what “line of duty” is to reach as high a number as possible; accidents, drowning, airplane accidents, falls, “job-related illnesses,” and heat exhaustion are all included in these numbers. Two-thirds of law-enforcement fatalities are not due to gun fire from “a brazen, cold-blooded element” that stalks the streets in search of police to kill (in fact, these only account for a fraction of gun-related fatalities), and the greatest number of fatalities is vehicle-related. In regard to the 2007 numbers, The Officer Down Memorial Fund breakdown interestingly lists deaths by vehicular assault and vehicular pursuit as separate from, and considerably fewer than, what is quizzically termed “automobile accidents.”

According to the 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 900,000 police officers and detectives nationwide, with another 120,000 federal law enforcement officers. Police have used such incidents as the ones we have seen recently in Seattle and Lakewood to give the impression that officers work in a war zone and are in constant danger--thus providing cover for the reality that they are more often a danger to those who are not in search of confrontation with police; the same week a completely innocent Native American woodcarver John T. Williams was gunned-down, four other people were killed by police, two of them after being repeatedly Tasered. Law enforcement agencies are required to report all deaths from deadly force to federal agencies, but estimates of 200 a year are clearly, and deliberately, inaccurate. One suspects that these numbers only reflect those that are not subject to questions of "justification.”

Is police work really that dangerous in real terms, especially since police work is by definition confrontational? Let’s makes some comparisons to other lines of work, courtesy the most recent Bureau of Labor statistics. Fisherman: 200 fatalities per 100,000. Loggers: 62 per 100,000. Airline pilots: 57 per 100,000. Farmers and ranchers: 36 per 100,000. Roofers: 35 per 100,000. No one denies that police work is dangerous, because not everyone reacts the same way to threats or uses of force, but the fact is the overall death rate of 3.3 fatalities per 100,000 for all workers is twice that of law enforcement officers. This can be explained by the fact that police spend the vast majority of their time just driving around (or sitting around) and occasionally pulling someone over for minor traffic violations; for all but a “brazen, crazed” few, the knowledge that a police officer carries a gun and can use it virtually at whim is sufficient to maintain an officer’s safety.

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