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Being a Cop is Really Not That Dangerous

One thing we hear constantly in defense of police misconduct and brutality is that you have to cut them some slack because they do such a dangerous job. But it turns out that this is a myth. When you look at the actual numbers, being a police officer is not even close to the most dangerous job. Not even in the top ten.

In 2013, out of 900,000 sworn officers, just 100 died from a job-related injury. That’s about 11.1 per 100,000, or a rate of 0.01%.

Policing doesn’t even make it into the top 10 most dangerous American professions. Logging has a fatality rate 11 times higher, at 127.8 per 100,000. Fishing: 117 per 100,000. Pilot/flight engineer: 53.4 per 100,000. It’s twice as dangerous to be a truck driver as a cop—at 22.1 per 100,000.

Another point to bear in mind is that not all officer fatalities are homicides. Out of the 100 deaths in 2013, 31 were shot, 11 were struck by a vehicle, 2 were stabbed, and 1 died in a “bomb-related incident.” Other causes of death were: aircraft accident (1), automobile accident (28), motorcycle accident (4), falling (6), drowning (2), electrocution (1), and job-related illness (13).

Even assuming that half these deaths were homicides, policing would have a murder rate of 5.55 per 100,000, comparable to the average murder rate of U.S. cities: 5.6 per 100,000. It’s more dangerous to live in Baltimore (35.01 murders per 100,000 residents) than to be a cop in 2014.

Can it be a difficult job? Of course. But it isn’t a particularly dangerous job. And as I’ve argued for years, we should hold those we entrust with such enormous power even more accountable for their actions than the average person. They are given high-powered weapons, the ability to destroy someone’s life and the authority to kill. They are entrusted to enforce the law. If they break the law and violate someone’s rights, the penalties should be stiff.

Comments

  1. D. C. Sessions says

    If they break the law and violate someone’s rights, the penalties should be stiff.

    And they are. That’s why they are so rarely invoked. Have you ever been on paid suspension for weeks on end?

  2. colnago80 says

    Can it be a difficult job? Of course. But it isn’t a particularly dangerous job.

    That depends on where the policing is done. I daresay that police officers in, say Chicago or Baltimore, are in considerably more danger then police officers in, say, the suburban areas of those jurisdictions.

  3. Doubting Thomas says

    The job of a cop and some others, like psychiatric tech or nurse, is to deal with those people whom the rest of us don’t want to or those people who are experiencing the worst situations of their lives. While this does at times endanger them, for the most part it would tend to make them to be disgusted with the behavior of their fellow man. Over time this has to affect their thinking about us in general, especially if their own motivation for taking the job is questionable. Kudos to those who can rise above it all and live up to their motto, “protect and serve”.

  4. timmmmm says

    Leaving aside the accidental deaths we have 45 officers killed on the job versus how many citizens killed by police during 2013?

  5. says

    Police officering might not be so dangerous, but they have to deal with the people I can’t deal with. If that means they get to tase me once in a while, it’s a small price to pay to break up the party across the street. I mean, come on! It’s a weeknight! Some of us have to work in the morning! Jerks. At least play some Skynyrd.

     

    If they break the law and violate someone’s rights, the penalties should be stiff.

    Back when I was a stripper, my stage name was Stiff Pentalies.

     
    Doubting Thomas “Kudos to those who can rise above it all and live up to their motto, ‘protect and serve’.”
    Protect ‘n’ Serve were also cop rappers, back in the day. You probably remember their hit, “911 is the opposite of a joke”.

  6. BobApril says

    Colnago80, you might be right. But I suspect most people would have guessed policing in general to be more dangerous than these statistics show. I don’t think I would daresay one way or the other without some numbers to back up my guessing.

  7. howardhershey says

    The real job of a cop appears to be stopping poor people driving old cars with non-working taillights, hassling black teenagers for walking in the middle of streets, arresting them for pot possession, arresting those ‘driving while black’ or living in the wrong neighborhoods, selling stuff on the streets without a license, and earning the city money from fees charged to those least able to afford it. IOW, maintaining the correct social order.

    The complaints about the police stem largely from the above type of actions, not the times when they deal with serious crime and serious criminals.

    As Anatole France put it, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

  8. smrnda says

    I think the police ‘dealing with people I don’t want to deal with’ is probably a pretty few and far between experience. Instead, the cops deal with (in many cases) the same people I deal with, except the cops are intent to piss and shit on them from the beginning. After all, I have no intention of subjecting the Black teenagers hanging out to unconstitutional ‘stop and frisk’ searches.

    I recall one occasion when I saw a man fall down, possibly having a seizure. A cop decided to yell at the guy about drinking or drugs or something, while I pointed out that I’d called an AMBULANCE since what was going on was a medical emergency.

    On safety, I kind of wonder if cops in higher crime areas are really in that much danger. I mean, living in Chicago, I didn’t really hear much about officer fatalities, even in the most dangerous areas of the city. Cops do tend to put their own safety above the safety of the public.

  9. noe1951 says

    It’s possible that a lot of police do that job to see themselves as heroes – similar to the open carry nuts in Texas. Then, when the job turns out to be boring most of the time, they find way to make it much more exciting.

  10. says

    I recall watching an appalling Fox News clip. Car chase comes to an end with the suspect surrendering, spread eagle on the ground. Cop runs up and tries to kick a field goal with the suspect’s head. Naturally, being Fox News, I was treated to the commentator’s excuses, saying anyone would want to do the same in the cop’s place. My thought, “shouldn’t we demand that our cops be better than that? Shouldn’t emotional control be part of the job description?” Of course, we should also demand that people in general be better than that.

  11. doublereed says

    This looks to me like fussing with statistics. For example:

    It’s more dangerous to live in Baltimore (35.01 murders per 100,000 residents) than to be a cop in 2014.

    Comparing one of the most dangerous cities to a nationwide job is ridiculous and shows nothing. It also raises the question: How dangerous is it to be cop in Baltimore? Obviously the danger of being a cop varies wildly by area.

    Don’t like it. Don’t trust it. This looks fuzzy.

  12. illdoittomorrow says

    Well, see, if being a cop is relatively safe now, it’s only because we’ve chosen to give our Brave Heroes the (military) equipment they need to do their job- keep uppity urban thugs and criminals in line. Everyone should have an M4! Then we’d all be safe. I especially need one, not only for thugs and criminals, but in case the Brave Heroes decide I’m one of those uppity urban thugs and criminals. Because tyranny!!

    How am I doing? Trying to channel frightwing racism and gun loonery makes my brain hurt.

  13. John Horstman says

    And as I’ve argued for years, we should hold those we entrust with such enormous power even more accountable for their actions than the average person. They are given high-powered weapons, the ability to destroy someone’s life and the authority to kill. They are entrusted to enforce the law. If they break the law and violate someone’s rights, the penalties should be stiff.

    Emphasis added.

    This is a key point. Even if it were the most dangerous job in the world, this would still hold true. The fact that it is not all that dangerous is just further support for challenges to privileges enjoyed by police officers. One must also question how many of the incidents of police officers encountering danger are a result of the officers escalating instead of deescalating the situations. If I go to bars and pick fights every time, going to bars is going to look a lot more dangerous to me than it actually is generally.

  14. inquisitiveraven says

    Umm, Smrnda? If being a cop is anything like being a firefighter or EMS responder, they’re legally obligated to put their safety first. The idea is that if something happens to the emergency responder, then that’s one more person who needs taking care of, and is tying up resources that could’ve been used to help the original victims.

    The problem arises when protecting themselves unnecessarily endangers the people around them.

  15. karmacat says

    I’ve been in the Baltimore area for over 20 years. I don’t remember any cops being killed except for maybe in a traffic accident. Stopping cars on the road is far more dangerous than being the bad areas of Baltimore

  16. wscott says

    When I was younger, I worked in law enforcement for a couple of years; and I still know and work with a lot of cops. None of which makes me an expert, but hey this is the Internet, so FWIW…

    The title of this post is pretty accurate*, but good luck finding a cop in the country who will agree with that. Cops are subject to the same biases, rationalizations & logical fallacies as the rest of us humans, and all their careers they’ve been fed a steady drum beat of how dangerous their job is and how many people would like to kill them and how they need to be constantly prepared to defend themselves so they don’t end up like That One Guy. How do a few measly statistics compete with that? This IMO is the real issue with the militarization of law enforcement – military-grade weapons & equipment are a part of it, but the big problem is the mindset that trains officers (consciously or unconsciously) to look at The Man On The Street first as an enemy they need to defend themselves against.

    * Caveat: Depending on how you define “dangerous.” Counting fatalities is only one piece of it. Most patrol cops (even the non-assholes, yes they exist) will tell you they’re lucky to make it through a week without someone throwing a punch at them; I suspect if you had to face that day in and day out, you’d likely consider your job fairly dangerous. Data for that sort of thing would probably be hard to pull together, however.

    @ Doubting Thomas #4: I agree that’s a part of it. I think a lot of mostly-law-abiding folks tend to seriously underestimate just how much shit cops have to put up with on a daily basis. For me, that’s a large part of why I got out of that line of work: spending most your day dealing with the worst elements of society is not great for your worldview, and I wanted to get out before I became irreparably jaded.

    NPR had an interview the other day with a Police Chief (I tuned in late so I missed what city), who pointed out the effect of pulling officers off foot patrols – where you interact positively with regular citizens in between calls – and putting them in cars where they just go from call to call, everyone they meet is having a shitty day before the cops show up, and very few are actually glad to see them arrive. The latter is far more efficient from a manpower standpoint, but side effects may include…

    @ illdoittomorrow #13: Having had this exact conversation with a lot of cops, your first sentence isn’t far off from what many cops believe. And they do have some evidence (tho mostly anecdotal) to support that belief. Ed often posts about the increased use of SWAT Teams to serve drug search warrants, etc, and personally I agree that’s a problem. But from the police’s standpoint, it has reduced the number of police getting shot at while serving those warrants: show up with overwhelming force, and the Bad Guys ™ are less likely to start something.

    To be clear: I’m not defending any of the above. Just trying to explain the mindset.

  17. amrie says

    Baltimore (35.01 murders per 100,000 residents)

    Or in other words, more than per-all-5-million-of-us where I live (Norway). Huh. I’ve been to Baltimore; didn’t look that scary…

  18. lorn says

    If you limit your definition of ‘dangerous’ to fatalities police work isn’t so bad, my profession as an electrical worker, depending on the job decription, is in that top ten. Fair enough.

    On the other hand few job are as consequential and unpredictable as police work. Decisions by police change lives. Being charged with a felony versus a misdemeanor is often a judgment call but one which keeps you out of the system or gets you time in jail, where you are inculcated into the criminal culture, and released with a record which means your chances of getting a good job have gone from slim to none. the way the police write up an incident has a lot to do with whether a juvenile is charged as an adult or goes to ‘kiddie court’ where his sins will disappear when he turns 18.

    Just sending people to jail is often send one or more families over the edge. Families struggling to make ends meet often face thousands of dollars in court costs, fees, and can be denied certain kinds of aid, a driver’s license, or professional licenses until all fees, fines and penalties are paid.

    A case in point: A guy I worked with, I’ll call him Bill, and I were laid off. No big deal. Everyone knew the job was finished and our boss told us he would be starting a new job in couple of weeks, perhaps a month at the outside. So we figured we had a few weeks of well deserved vacation seeing as that neither of us had taken a vacation for several years. Unfortunately Bill went out drinking with his wife and wrapped their car around a tree. His wife was seriously injured and both rode to the hospital where she was admitted to the trauma center. When the doctor came out and told him she might not live he freaked out. Police were called and he was charged with drunk driving ( a fair cop) and assault on a police officer ( a nor so fair cop according to nurses) . He spent the night in jail and plead guilty to drunk driving, first offense, and agreed to pay a $1000 fine, court cost of several hundred dollars and attend a alcohol abuse class, another hundred and some dollars. The assault charge was dropped. So far so good.

    Except when we were laid off the insurance company was supposed to carry us for ninety days but they listed us as ‘not covered’. So when his wife needed treatment he had to pony up his savings to cover it. He was assured by the insurance company that just as soon as the insurance thing was straightened out he would get all his money back. So for months he had only a few hundred dollars to live on. And then that $1000 fine came due. He tried to contact me, I would have loaned him the money, but I was off camping, and this was before cell phones were anything but a rich man’s toy. He tried to tell the court there would be delay but was told that he would be okay as long as he didn’t run into the police. Just pay it off as soon as you can the clerk told him.

    Which was fine except that we were getting into the holiday season. He didn’t think a thing about it when he rolled into the sobriety check-point. He had given up drinking and was stone cold sober. And pretty proud of it. Which meant he was surprised when they told him to ‘over there’ and ‘get out with his hands up’ . Non-payment meant there was an arrest warrant issued so he was arrested and hauled off to jail, another $250 fee.

    All of this meant he was broke and unable to renew his credentials when it came time to renew his certification. You can’t renew until all fines are paid. A minor problem, except the new job started and he really, really needed that certificate. We both were hired the same day. I was hired as a journeyman at roughly $18 an hour with benefits, and he got on as a helper at $10 an hour without benefits. It would have been $8 but the boss knew him and gave him the maximum pay he could for the job title. As it was, with his wife needing intensive medical treatment, and the insurance paying but hen running out, it took several years to pay it all off and during much of that time he drove with one eye behind him in fear he would get pulled over again. The system sucks.

    The police didn’t design this system.

    An interesting factoid is that while police are not particularly high in rates of suicide overall, electrical workers have worryingly high rates, but when you segregate out white officer you find that black and female officers have a very high rate of suicide. I suspect that white officers are under-reported because the culture known how to make ‘eating the gun’ more socially acceptable by calling it an accident. I have personal experience with one case, a neighbor, an ex-cop, “forgot” to clear his gun before cleaning it and ended up dead. No way he forgot to clear the weapon. But as an ‘accident’ his wife gets his pension and a helpful insurance payout.

    But, just for the sake of argument let’s assume the statistics are correct. Why would white cops be less likely to commit suicide? Well … what are white cops accused of being? Bigots and racists. But both of those might be termed failures to empathize. What might replace empathy? Simple, a belief in the system, and faith that operating as cogs in the bigger machine allows them to avoid blame. It is either that or let it get you down to the point you eat the gun. As I said, police didn’t design the system. Like others stepped on in the inhuman system white cops are just trying to cope.

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