Are Critics of Cops Driving a Spike in Cop Killing?

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

From the A.P.:

The number of U.S. police officers who died in the line of duty is up 43 percent so far this year, according to an organization that honors fallen law enforcement officials.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund says that if the trend continues, 2010 could become one of the deadliest years for U.S. police agencies in two decades.

The fund was to release preliminary data Wednesday showing that 87 officers died in the line of duty between Jan. 1 and June 30. That’s up sharply from 61 officers killed during the first six months of last year.

Last year, on-duty officer deaths hit a 50-year low. So what’s behind the increase?

Eugene O’Donnell, professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the number of officer fatalities fluctuates from year to year. However, he said he has noticed an “alarming frequency” of people targeting police.

“There has been a spate of particularly brutal and senseless attacks on the police,” said O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor in New York. “It seems to me, an unprecedented level of disrespect and willingness to challenge police officers all over the place.”

He said a rise in mental health problems and scathing criticism of police, such as the comments found on some blogs, could be fueling the brazenness and disregard for authority.

That sounds like a huge leap. If you look at the National Law Enforcement Fund statistics, 42 of the 87 officer deaths so far this year were from automobile or motorcycle accidents, or from an officer struck by a vehicle. Thirty-one deaths were from gunfire, and 14 were from “other.”*

The 31 gunfire deaths so far this year are up from 22 in the first six months of last year. But I wonder what evidence O’Donnell has that would cause him to attribute an additional nine officer deaths among 900,000 active duty cops to an “unprecedented level of disrespect” and a sweeping trend of “scathing criticism” of cops on the Internet. I don’t know of a single case last year where there was evidence that an officer’s murder could be traced back to anger or resentment on a web forum. I obviously haven’t looked into all 31 officer shootings, but if there was even a hint of a suggestion that the Internet motivated someone to kill a cop, it’s the sort of salacious detail the media would have lapped up and obsessed over for days. And we’d need quite a few of those incidents to make a trend.

Reporters always look for explanations for these sorts of numbers, even when there may not be one. The number of cops intentionally killed while on duty is small enough—especially when compared to the total number of cops working—that nine additional gunfire deaths over six months may well just be a statistical hiccup. The problem comes when people cite figures like these to call for policy changes, or to defend current policies, that favor police protection over civil liberties. For example, it wouldn’t be difficult to envision a politician using O’Donnell’s quote to defend a policy of a arresting and imprisoning people who take cell phone videos of on-duty police officers.

(*The NLEF stats don’t differentiate homicides from accidental deaths. So it’s possible that some of the auto-related or “other” fatalities were homicides, and it’s also possible that some of the gunfire-related deaths weren’t.)

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47 Responses to “Are Critics of Cops Driving a Spike in Cop Killing?”

  1. #1 |  JS | 

    Did freedom of the press contribute to the rebellion of the colonies against King George? I suppose, but does it thereby follow that news of the King’s policies should have been suppressed?

  2. #2 |  Marc | 

    Here’s another idea: It’s not blogs that are causing people to lose respect in police, but heightened awareness of how corrupt and evil they are, with all the reports of puppycide, using their power to settle personal vendettas, and so on. Blaming blogs for reporting those things is like blaming the whistleblower. But…that happens a lot, too.

  3. #3 |  EH | 

    But I wonder what evidence O’Donnell has that would cause him to attribute an additional nine officer deaths among 900,000 active duty cops to an “unprecedented level of disrespect” and a sweeping trend of “scathing criticism” of cops on the Internet

    Law enforcement is logically bipolar. It’s what they do. Any change must be magnified to galactic terms. If there are any occupations in the US that reward the psychological concept of “splitting,” the beat cop and the POA spokesperson are surely among them.

  4. #4 |  Maria | 

    It’s quite a leap indeed. The idea that there is an increased and visible disrespect for all cops because of the actions and policies of some officers is completely plausible, understandable and unfortunate.

    The idea that cops are being brutally murdered all over the place because of this grumbling disrespect is exactly what that article want’s the reader to conclude. They just don’t come out and say it directly because if they said it it would be a lie. Not that lies have ever stopped “good” journalists. If even the cops aren’t safe, no one is safe! And this way, it’s all innocent journalistic speculation, dontchia know.

  5. #5 |  Danny | 

    Also, police have been known to shoot eachother when one is undercover. It’s been a while since I heard of a case, but it happened more than once in NYC a while back.

    Here in Massachusetts, we have had a cluster of highway police getting hit by drunk drivers.

  6. #6 |  SJE | 

    That sort of change is consistent with random variation. Look the NLEF data.

    Also, there is a clear trend of less deaths since the late 1970s. So much for the vicious killers, meth epidemic etc.

    If there WAS an increase, why would this be a result of blogs? Do you think that people in poor neighborhoods suddenly disrespect the cops? How many cops died in stupid SWAT raids (e.g. checking for stolen goldfish)

  7. #7 |  DJB | 

    People have contempt for officers (and often by extension the law) because of the contemptible actions of a minority of the officers (and legislators). While it may be unfair to indite the many good officers for the actions of the few, it has become necessary to do so because of the systems (thin blue line of silence) continued refusal to seek out and punish those who are corrupt, brutal and thuggish.

    Not to mention the “ends justify the means” culture of the drug war and war on terror.

  8. #8 |  Jon Gray | 

    @Danny

    Ah! But you forget that if drug dealers weren’t dealing drugs then there would be no need for these officers to be undercover trying to protect the public from dime bags. Further, if drug dealers weren’t historically violent the uniformed police officers wouldn’t be inclined to shoot a suspected drug dealer. Thus, drug dealers caused the cops to shoot each other and therefore these situations are homicide.

    /I wrote that sarcastically but then, sadly, realized someone might actually make that argument.

  9. #9 |  BSK | 

    “…unprecedented level of disrespect and willingness to challenge police officers all over the place…”

    Are we really comfortable equating the two? Why must any challenge to police be immediately deemed disrespectful? I realize the two often go hand-in-hand, but the implication that any challenge to a police officer’s authority is inherently disrespectful AND a cause in police homicides is dangerous. If we accept this type of logic being promoted, then we essentially give cops an excuse to shoot anyone who challenges them, since they can justify it by insisting that it would have inevitably lead to their own death.

  10. #10 |  Laura Victoria | 

    It would be nice if this spike were really caused by armed and motivated citizens defending themselves against puppycide raids, but it seems like too small a numerical differential.

    This whole issue of the relatively low number of cop deaths by criminals is a topic I’ve been planning on writing about for a while. All the talk by those defending the cops is based on ‘ohh, their jobs are sooo tough, they risk their lives every waking moment.” I decided to research the stats and fortunately, about that time, stats were released showing the above number – what I heard was 146 for 2009. And I knew of course most of those had to be auto collission related.

    Yet this most dangerous job this side of Afghanistan myth is foisted on the public. Can’t wait to compare these numbers with those for ironworkers, tuna fishermen, fire fighters, and heck – maybe even lawyers. Then, I’d love to get my hands on (probably uncompiled) data on how many people are wrongfully killed by police each year. Hopefully, slowly, conservatives distrustful of every government agency in the country will slowly but surely remove their blanket exemption for law enforcement.

  11. #11 |  Laura Victoria | 

    #7, DJB: What is your definition of a minority? If it’s 49.9 percent, then you are in range of who the bad cops are and I don’t disagree. But, your tone sounds like “small minority” or even “tiny minority.’ It varies tremendously by jurisdiction and the type of culture the leadership brass creates or permits to flourish. If we define “bad’ as cops who routinely lie in reports and in court and are on power trips, and whose main goal is their buds in blue and their paychecks, rather than protecting and serving the public, my guess is 30-40 percent easily, and growing.

  12. #12 |  Rhayader | 

    Forget about tying an “unprecedented level of disrespect” to any stats relating to on-duty police deaths. That’s like three steps down the road; they make no attempt to demonstrate that the supposed “unprecedented level of disrespect” even exists to begin with.

  13. #13 |  BSK | 

    Laura-

    I think it depends on how we are defining “bad”. I think there is probably a small minority who deliberately and explicitly abuse their power. There are many more who might not engage in such behavior on their own but cowardly submit to it when their peers do. There are more still who may never participate but explicitly lie or otherwise protect and defend the first two groups. Even more probably want nothing to do with any of the first three groups but are too cowardly or disinterested to do anything about it, thus tacitly offering silent support. And a small group are genuinely dedicated to their profession and speak out against injustice, regardless of who it is perpetrated by. And within all these groups you have folks who are good at their jobs and bad at their jobs and mediocre at their jobs and stellar at their jobs and fully incompetent.

    That is not to excuse any of the “bad” groups or individuals, but I do think there are degrees.

  14. #14 |  Marty | 

    the most dangerous routine acts cops face are traffic stops and domestic disputes. I know there’s been lots of activity as far as traffic stops go- municipalities around here are instructing cops to lower the ‘buffer’ from 10 mph over to 6 or 7 mph over the speed limit… quotas are more obvious.

    I’m wondering if this doesn’t factor into the statistics.

  15. #15 |  Dennis N | 

    #10 | Laura Victoria

    Police doesn’t even show up on the list of dangerous jobs. The danger is just a cop myth. When I work in construction, on the highways no less, my job is far more dangerous than a cops, and partially for the same reason – idiot motorists. It is very personal danger, though, and that makes a different impact. It’s also magnified by the fact that cops are trained to fear the Citizens. They might hurt a cop, after all. It is a profession of cowardice.

    I was having a discussion with a cop about lunatic drivers and commented, “The most dangerous thing you can do, is to drive to the gun fight.”

    He gave me a funny look, then agreed with me.

    Society’s role is not to make life safer for cope.

  16. #16 |  Potential LVMPD Victim | 

    The real story should be that letting cops get away with murder drives a spike in cops murdering regular people. At least it seems that way in Las Vegas, where the two most recent police murder victims (Trevon Cole and Erik Scott) were shot by cops who had been involved in previous fatal shootings.

    Of course, the Clark County Coroner’s inquest cleared these murderers of wrongdoing, because it has done so in over 99% of fatal police shootings. I’m sure, after these psychos are cleared of wrongdoing, we’ll hear some sob stories about how traumatized they were that they “had to” shoot someone or how it was a “tragic accident.” The notion that these monsters join the police force _in large part because they can kill repeatedly and get away with it_ is certainly more plausible than the notion that exposing police misconduct encourages citizens to kill cops.

    See http://www.kolotv.com/southernnevadanews/headlines/96449989.html and http://www.8newsnow.com/global/story.asp?s=12793800 for more on which of these “peace officers” joined the force simply for a license to kill.

  17. #17 |  EH | 

    People have contempt for officers (and often by extension the law) because of the contemptible actions of a minority of the officers (and legislators).

    And vice versa. However, the stereotype-based contempt law enforcement has for citizens has demonstrably resulted in death to the citizen.

  18. #18 |  HD | 

    Simple statistics of small sample size. The square root of 70 is roughly 8, so that’s a one sigma variation. So 70 down to 61 is one sigma, and 70 to 87 is a two sigma variation, and has a 14% (ish) probability of occuring by chance.

    If you look only at the gunfire stats, and assume it’s not because of cops shooting themselves (probably not a good assumption, since they’re the one with the guns), the square root of 25 (average of the two years) is 5, and a change down to 22 or up to 31 is a one sigma variation and has a probability of occurring 34% of the time. Meaningless.

    Or rather, what it means is one should (usually) not draw any conclusions from small changes in small samples

  19. #19 |  Carl Drega | 

    Being a cop is dangerous for one reason – they spend a great deal of time driving around. If you take out the deaths by motor vehicle, it just isn’t very dangerous at all.

    “He said a rise in mental health problems and scathing criticism of police, such as the comments found on some blogs, could be fueling the brazenness and disregard for authority.”

    I prefer: He said a rise in mental health problems and scathing criticism of police, as the increased video and audio recording capabilities we all have coupled with the near instantaneous and widespread availability of the internet to distribute same has opened many people’s eyes to just how often malfeasance, abuse and downright murder occur at the hands of the police.

  20. #20 |  Dante | 

    I have to say, it’s disgusting that the media picks up on public disrespect for the police, but then whitewashes all the reports of police disrespect of the public.

    Bottom Line: The police are paid by the public to be professional, respectful and courteous. It’s their job, not a choice.

    We, the People, are under no such constraints, and given the complete lack of respect shown to us by Law Enforcement over the last 50 or so years, we are due a large refund.

    Protect & Serve (Themselves!)

  21. #21 |  BamBam | 

    “There has been a spate of particularly brutal and senseless attacks on the police,”

    replace police with citizens and it is a very true statement.

  22. #22 |  Nash | 

    “He said a rise in mental health problems and scathing criticism of police, such as the comments found on some blogs, could be fueling the brazenness and disregard for authority.”

    It’s been touched on a couple times, but the bit about mental health problems just utterly blew me away.

    The public is more crazy than before, therefore cops are in danger. Right.

  23. #23 |  Kevin | 

    “Reporters always look for explanations for these sorts of numbers, even when there may not be one.”

    It’s not just reporters, it’s anyone who wants to promote a certain point of view. Correlation and causation are not the same thing. As illustrated by one of my fav. jokes:

    A scientist is studying frogs, and decides to measure a frog’s response to injury. He says “Jump frog” (his frog is well trained) and the frog jumps three feet. He then removes one of the frog’s legs, says “Jump frog”, and the frog jumps a little less far. This continues until the frog is legless, the researcher says “Jump frog”, and the frog does not move.

    The scientist concludes: “Frogs with no legs are deaf.”

    I have used the term A Frog With No Legs as a euphemism for a baseless conclusion like the one it the article, but usually no one knows what I am talking about.

  24. #24 |  Dave | 

    Police associations love to hype the idea that police work is terribly dangerous and the brave “men in blue” (or black) are “laying there lives on the line every day”!
    Well, the numbers tell a different story, law enforcement is not even in the top 20 most dangerous types of work, farmers, roofers, tree trimmers, truck drivers, and convenience store clerks are jobs that are far more likely to get you killed than being a police officer.
    Yet none of the people who do the relly dangerous types of work approach the public with their hand on a gun and a bad attitude.

  25. #25 |  Kent | 

    http://www.gjsentinel.com/news/articles/trooper_knocks_fires_fatal_sho/P20/

    Read the comments by viewers, this one doesn’t look good.

  26. #26 |  TC | 

    Using percentages falls into the category of, one very piss poor measuring device.

    Best to use real numbers, especially when you are dealing with such small REAL numbers. Givin our total population, a hundred a year aint very many, since they train them to be total assholes,,,, aint near enough. Not a suggestion, just an observation.

    Ya gots ta love it when officials pull shit resembling statistics outta their ass and actually present them as some sort of fact.

  27. #27 |  BamBam | 

    #10, you can look up job related deaths and rankings at Dept of Labor web site. This assumes that a government agency has accurate data that is reliable for basing statements on. I believe it is likely reliable.

  28. #28 |  Cynical in CA | 

    I attribute Eugene O’Donnell’s point of view to his habits of beating the crap out of his wife, screwing little boys in the ass and skewering live puppies on spikes.

    I don’t have any evidence for these assertions mind you, but it’s the most plausible explanation.

  29. #29 |  God's Own Drunk | 

    “….that nine additional gunfire deaths over six months may well just be a statistical hiccup”

    Absolutely. Especially considering 4 of those deaths occured in one incident (Maurice Clemmons here in my neck of the woods).

    On the other hand, the 2 officers shot in January in Seattle (1 killed, 1 wounded) were shot by a man who explicitly targeted the police for their abuses of power and brutality.

  30. #30 |  Dave Krueger | 

    I wonder how many of those dead cops were killed because of nonsensical policies that intentionally escalate confrontations into violent events. You know, the kind of stories that cause much of that “scathing criticism” of cops on the Internet

  31. #31 |  Aresen | 

    IANA statistician, but this is pure statistical gamesmanship.

    Two years ago, the figure was remarkably low – dropping from over 100 the year before down to under 60. Did the NLEOMF people come out then and say “gosh, people are being nice to cops”?

    After a slight rise to 61 last year, the figure bumped up to 87, but this is only slightly above the overall downward trend line and appears to lie near or within two standard deviations of the mean. The change meaningless given the small number of events.

    The NLEOMF needs to get a “bullshit” call on this one.

  32. #32 |  Aresen | 

    For comparison, BTW, examine this table of lightning related fatalities in the US over the last 50 years.

    The figures are comparable and show similar statistical variations. (Interesting, there has been a roughly 2/3 drop in numbers over the last 50 years. Do Americans have less spark nowadays?) :)

  33. #33 |  Monica | 

    There are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics.

    “For example, it wouldn’t be difficult to envision a politician using O’Donnell’s quote to defend a policy of a arresting and imprisoning people who take cell phone videos of on-duty police officers.”

    The problem with even writing this is that somewhere some “defender of liberty” lawmaker might actually say “Yeah, why didn’t I think of that myself”

  34. #34 |  Michael Chaney | 

    I wonder how many of those dead cops were killed because of nonsensical policies that intentionally escalate confrontations into violent events. You know, the kind of stories that cause much of that “scathing criticism” of cops on the Internet

    And are dismissed by the department spokesman as “standard procedure”.

  35. #35 |  Luke | 

    @DJB: “While it may be unfair to indite the many good officers for the actions of the few, it has become necessary to do so because of the systems (thin blue line of silence) continued refusal to seek out and punish those who are corrupt, brutal and thuggish. ”

    A “good” cop who actively covers for bad cops, is a BAD cop.

    A “good” cop who merely looks the other way and doesn’t speak up in the face of cop misconduct, is also a BAD cop.

  36. #36 |  Kevin Carson | 

    Maybe it’s the filthy, corrupt shit that they’re being rightfully criticized for that’s causing them to be killed. Maybe if they don’t want people to hate them, they should quit being such fucking dirtbags.

  37. #37 |  ZappaCrappa | 

    Cool…some good news for a change. I’m still going to wager that the unwarranted civilian deaths by cop far outnumbers the deaths of cops by 20X…in fact…I’ll go “ALL IN” on that bet.

    Stop killing us for no reason and we’ll stop killing you…how’s that for an idea? Still waiting to see if this story illicits any emotion other than a “meh”………nope. Still a “meh.” I’ll save my pity and concern for those who actually deserve it.

  38. #38 |  BSK | 

    Luke-

    That is true, but there are degrees. The guy who stand idly by why a cop abuses a suspect is wrong. But he’s LESS wrong than the guy doing the abusing. Both deserve punishment, but I would say there is at least hope of redemption for the former. Not necessarily as an LEO, but at least as a person.

  39. #39 |  Duncan20903 | 

    @HD there’s the infamous Youtube segment of the cop teaching a class of students about gun safety shooting himself in the leg.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAVYFRM5Tl8

  40. #40 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    “There has been a spate of particularly brutal and senseless attacks on the police,…”

    in response to the CONTINUED brutal and senseless attacks on the public by the police.

    Idiots unable to understand why violence against cops is up are most likely also confused as to why the USA is a target of terrorists. Hint: it has more to do with our foreign policy than our freedom.

  41. #41 |  NinthStage | 

    The homicide rate for all occupations is probably between 0.6 and 0.9 per 100k (1980 to 1995 CDC data). This report shows that police homicides are likely to stay right in that range this year. Nothing new or special here, cops simply do not have particularly dangerous jobs.

    BTW, motor vehicle fatality rates for the same period ranged between 0.9 and 1.7 per 100k for the same period.

  42. #42 |  Steve Verdon | 

    Last year, on-duty officer deaths hit a 50-year low. So what’s behind the increase?

    You just explained it, IMO. Returning to the mean. Not that shocking. Everything else is just rent seeking/power seeking bullshit.

  43. #43 |  Shiden | 

    At least a few of those deaths are because of the “they’re coming to take my gunz OMG!” crowd too, so don’t forget to blame some of the nuts who’ve been stirred up by Beck et. al.

  44. #44 |  croaker | 

    @39 If that’s the RastaFed movie, it was more along the lines of “I’m a professional, you’re not, BANG!”

  45. #45 |  JOR | 

    #43,

    You mean Beck’s actually helping accomplish something useful? Maybe the Tea Party types aren’t as worthless as I thought.

  46. #46 |  Phelps | 

    It’s simple to me. Municipalities are pushing cops to more and more tax collection masquerading as traffic control. That means more stops, more random contact, and more random contact means more violent contact.

  47. #47 |  Mark Matis | 

    Maybe if “Law Enforcement” would actually honor their oath of office to “…preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution…” they might have less problems. As it is, FAR TOO MANY view that oath as a mere formality and instead bow and scrape before their Masters and then do whatever they’re told. Making them NOT “Law Enforcment” but instead merely Thugs with Guns. Whether it’s Seattle or Las Vegas or Chicago, the stench is overwhelming.

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