By the Numbers: Police Militarization and the Other Dangers of Being a Cop

2013 was the safest year for American policing, relative to the population policed, since 1875.
2013 was the safest year for American policing, relative to the population policed, since 1875.

How dangerous is policing today? Is it getting worse, and does it justify the kinds of armaments local police forces are using? The Pentagon is giving cops half a billion dollars a year of military equipment, under the auspices of keeping them and us safe, so the answer really does matter.

I’ve been criticized by defenders of police militarization for my recent article detailing the long decline in law enforcement fatalities. They argue that fatalities understate the other risks that police officers face, such as assault, and that increasing nonlethal attacks on cops justify the kinds of military gear we’re seeing deployed around the country.

First, this is a special pleading. Mortality rates are universally recognized as a legitimate way of evaluating and comparing the dangers of every other profession, and by this metric, law enforcement doesn’t even make it into the top ten most dangerous jobs. Of course fatalities alone don’t provide a complete picture, but they do provide a vital piece.

In the context of lethal risk and lethal force in law enforcement, it’s entirely valid to focus on mortality. The data for fatalities is also much more reliable than for assault, since all homicides are recorded by the FBI, but reports of assaults on police are sent in voluntarily by local departments and don’t necessarily provide a full accounting.

Moreover, I stated explicitly in my original article:

This is not to say that police officers do not have a difficult job. They certainly do. They’re required to have daily contact with drunks, the mentally disabled, and criminal suspects. Arrests can often lead to physical confrontation, assault, and sometimes injury.

I can hardly be charged with ignoring assault against police when I brought it up myself and linked to statistics about it.

But the underlying issue is a valid, although separate, question. Even if the fatality rate for police has been declining for decades, what about the rates of assault and injury? Have they been spiraling out of control?

The answer is still no, and given that almost all violent crimes have been declining for decades, it would be surprising if attacks on cops were the only category that has been increasing.

In fact, they haven’t, by any measure. Data from the FBI show that both assaults and injuries on police officers, while sadly common, have been steadily declining for the last two decades, relative to the population policed. While felony killings of police already rare enough that the data isn’t significant, it also shows a slight downward trend.

assaults injuries murder per capita 1992-2013-4

Because the FBI’s data on assaults against officers is voluntarily reported by law enforcement, the number of agencies, cops, and citizens it covers will vary from year to year, so raw numbers don’t tell you very much. But the percentage of officers surveyed who were assaulted and injured has not been on the rise either. It also shows a gradual but steady decline.

assaults and injuries percent 1992-2013

No matter how you slice it, whether we look at fatalities, injuries, assaults, or murders, it has never been safer to be a cop. That doesn’t mean the job is easy, or that cops don’t have to deal with many difficult, confrontational, even injurious situations. It doesn’t mean that the use of force is never justified. But officers today are as secure against deadly force as they’ve been in over a hundred years. It’s a safer job than many common professions, and in fact, safer than living in most major cities.

My conclusion (and indictment) still stands: the numbers do not justify the increasingly oversized and dangerous equipment being deployed by police against their citizens. It’s time to stop the militarization, polarization, and alienation of our towns and cities.

This post has been updated to expand and update the charts.