28 January 2015

Being a Police Officer: The Safest Job Around?

Did you know that police officers have a safe job?

Apparently, a number of talking heads do. Or, at least it seems that way on some of the opinion shows I listen to. In the last month I have heard talk of how it is less dangerous to be a police officer than to be a random citizen of a major city and that more officers die from not wearing their seat belts than by the violent acts of a human.

It's always hard to tell where these memes come from. I think it's the last gasp of the Ferguson/NYC situations playing out. The last little bit of it concentrated on the demonstrators chanting for dead police and the whacko who killed the two NYC officers. If you speak to any officers you know that they also strongly suspect that this event triggered a number of other shootings around the nation. And finally we get the counter-argument that officers live safe lives.

It's also hard to lock down accurate statistics in this sort of thing because everyone is picking and choosing numbers which support their position or to make interesting headlines.  However, looking through various news articles, it appears violent police deaths at the hands of others in 2013 hit an anomalously low number somewhere around 30 and rose back to 50 in 2014 (1, 2, 3). Considering the number of people in police uniforms around the U.S., a country where everyone has the right to be armed, that's an amazingly low percentage. Still, the comparisons are fatuous and more than a little insulting.

The first time I heard this asserted was listening to Slate's Political Gabfest. I know. I know. I shouldn't be all that surprised that something like that would come from Slate. It even came from the person on the podcast who is the show's most unthinking proponent of liberal shibboleths.  Still, the assertion surprised me as being entirely unthinking. Then I blew it off as something which could only come from the leftiest of Slate's leftists.

And then I heard it again and again. Most recently I heard it on the Glenn Show on Blogging Heads.  As usual, Glenn Loury's discussion is more thoughtful, but his guest, who did not seem to have much connection with current events, made her point about how safe officers' lives are by pointedly stating that more officers die from not wearing their seat belts than from violent acts perpetrated upon them.

Correlation Does Not Equal Causation.

It's a basic lesson that everyone should have learned sometime back in school.  An example of this would be: firemen are present at 99.9% of house fires. Thus, there is a high statistical correlation between firemen and house fires. Looking at that statistic alone, you could conclude that firemen cause fires. The same sort of reasoning is going on here. Few officers die deaths at the hands of others ipso facto officers have a safe job.

Of course, the reality is different.  Anyone tasked with serving arrest warrants, responding to reports of domestic violence, and stopping drunk drivers, etc. is not living a safe life. They are facing significantly greater danger than the rest of us.

The difficulty is in quantifying that danger. This is because officers have at least three different interlocking (and sometimes conflicting) types of protection: personal, institutional, and clannish. Personal protections are the tools the officer has immediately at hand - his size and strength, his combat skills, his pistol, his tazer, etc.  Institutional protections are all the things which police agencies provide such as training, accumulated knowledge (shared via computer or radio), furnishing equipment shown most useful, etc.  Clannish protections are the least official, and can be the most problematic, but at a base level they probably provide the protection that your basic yahoo understands the best. If he shoots or beats up somebody wearing a uniform everyone else wearing that uniform, or a similar one, is coming after him with a vengeance.

So, if a yahoo were 60% likely to jump anyone who sticks their nose in his business, the likelihood that he jumps the 6'1" deputy responding to a domestic disturbance, who is informed by dispatch that the yahoo has convictions for prior violent crimes, and therefore has backup with him will usually drop a significant (but unmeasurable) amount. Let's say it goes down to 20%. The responding officer is still in a dangerous situation. And a street officer will be responding to dangerous situations like this several times a week - if not several times per day.  The fact that the officer is not injured does not equal the officer not being in danger.

Whatever other points one might wish to make - political, social, policy - claiming that officers don't live with the constant reality of danger is a weak pillar that leads to a weak argument on your part.

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