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Why We Need To Stop Exaggerating The Threat To Cops

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The recent killings of two prosecutors in Texas, a Colorado Department of Corrections official and a sheriff in West Virginia have law enforcement groups and the media once again buzzing about an alleged "war on cops" or, in some instances, a broader trend toward violent anti-government sentiment. Over at The Atlantic, Philip Bump does a good job debunking that idea. (He also quotes me.)

Unfortunately, thorough and skeptical analyses of police fatality statistics like Bump's are rare. The "war on cops" talk heats up every time that one or more high-profile police killings hit the news. But there's just no evidence that it's true.

I've pointed out a number of times that the job of police officer has been getting progressively safer for a generation. Last year was the safest year for cops since the early 1960s. And it isn't just because the police are carrying bigger guns or have better armor. Assaults on police officers have been dropping over the same period. Which means that not only are fewer cops getting killed on the job, people in general are less inclined to try to hurt them. Yes, working as a police officer is still more dangerous than, say, working as a journalist. (Or at least a journalist here in the U.S.) But a cop today is about as likely to be murdered on the job as someone who merely resides in about half of the country's 75 largest cities.

You can read the linked pieces above for more evidence that police officers today are as safe as they've been in decades. But I want to discuss why it's important to push back against this "war on cops" narrative.

It should go without saying, though I will: This has nothing to do with trying to diminish the tough job that police officers do or to cast aspersions on those who have been killed. But there are other reasons why journalists need to do a better job of reporting this story accurately. (Beyond the hopefully obvious value of reporting things accurately for the sake of reporting them accurately.)

For example, one effect of false perceptions about the dangers of policing that I've noted before is that they can sway public debate on issues like police budgets, police use of force, police militarization and what sort of accountability cops should face when they're accused of violating someone's civil rights. Exaggerating the threat that cops face can make policymakers and public officials more reluctant to hold bad cops accountable or more willing to outfit police departments with weapons and equipment better suited for warfare.

This would explain why police groups tend to perpetuate the myth. But why does the media credulously report their narrative? Part of it is probably just laziness -- a lack of will or interest in seeing whether the claims are backed up by any data. The "war on cops" meme also fits the "if it bleeds, it leads" idea. "While this officer's murder is tragic, generally speaking, law enforcement officers are safer on the job today than they've been in 50 years" just isn't as interesting as "This may be part of a growing trend of cop killing."

Much of the media also appear to be infatuated with the idea that we're in the midst of a dramatic rise in anti-government, anti-authority, pro-militia, right-wing, white nationalist -- pick your extremism -- violence in America, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. (Just last weekend the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page report on the "sovereign citizen" movement, a group that authorities say is responsible for six deaths in 12 years.) In the interest of fairness -- or some might say false equivalence -- I'll note the conservative media seem just as enamored with the idea of a growing threat of violence from Muslim extremists and environmental radicals, again despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

But there's a more pernicious effect of exaggerating the threat to police officers. In researching my forthcoming book, I interviewed lots of police officers, police administrators, criminologists and others connected to the field of law enforcement. There was a consensus among these people that constantly telling cops how dangerous their jobs are is affecting their mindset. It reinforces the soldier mentality already relentlessly drummed into cops' heads by politicians' habit of declaring "war" on things. Browse the online bulletin boards at sites like PoliceOne (where users must be credentialed law enforcement to comment), and you'll see a lot of hostility toward everyone who isn't in law enforcement, as well as various versions of the sentiment "I'll do whatever I need to get home safe at night." That's a mantra that speaks more to self-preservation than public service.

When cops are told that every day on the job could be their last, that every morning they say goodbye to their families could be the last time they see their kids, that everyone they encounter is someone who could possibly kill them, it isn't difficult to see how they might start to see the people they serve as an enemy. Again, in truth, the average cop has no more reason to see the people he interacts with day to day as a threat to his safety than does the average resident of St. Louis or Los Angeles or Nashville, where I live.

Last week I had lunch with a certified expert in police use of force -- a guy who teaches classes to police about how and when to use force, how much to use, and under what circumstances. I'm fairly cynical, and I've just written a book that covers much of this ground, but I was still surprised by what he told me. In too many use-of-force classes, he said, cops aren't taught about appropriate vs. inappropriate force so much as they're taught what to say and do to justify whatever force they've already used. In other words, the courses aren't about training, they're about ass-covering. Today, these courses stress officer safety above all else -- including the civil and constitutional rights and the safety of the citizens the police are supposed to be serving. They teach cops to use more force, sooner, more often, and how to justify it after the fact.

The Force Science Institute, for example, trains law enforcement officials in how to investigate allegations of excessive force. But browse the archives of the organization's newsletter and you'll mostly see articles justifying the use of Tasers and questioning claims that they cause injury or death; justifying (or at least mitigating the criticism of) police use of force in even egregious, high-profile incidents (such as the 2009 Oscar Grant shooting); and promoting junk science explanations of in-custody deaths like "excited delirium." You'll have a much more difficult time finding articles about how to de-escalate volatile situations or how to create a police culture that emphasizes dealing with difficult subjects without using force -- or at least with the minimum amount of force possible. This is a group that certifies investigators of police shootings, police use of stun guns and other allegations made against cops, and their educational materials show a strong bias toward highlighting research that justifies force.

Back in 2008, a SWAT team in Lima, Ohio, raided the home of a suspected drug dealer. During the raid, one SWAT officer perfunctorily shot and killed the suspect's dogs. As he did, another officer was ascending a flight of steps in the home. That officer mistook his colleague's gunfire for hostile fire and, seeing some shadows coming out of an upstairs bedroom, he opened fire into that room. Inside was 26-year-old Tarika Wilson. She was on her knees, as she'd been instructed. She had one arm in the air and the other holding her year-old son. Wilson was killed. Her son lost a hand.

Officer Joseph Chavalia was charged with manslaughter (a pretty rare thing in these cases). At his trial, one use-of-force expert -- someone who trains police officers on when it's appropriate to use force -- actually testified that not only had Chavalia not done anything wrong, but if anything he was too slow to fire on the unarmed woman and her child. (Chavalia was acquitted.) This is the training too many police officers get today -- shoot first, worry about what you're shooting at later.

All else being equal, we should certainly strive to keep police officers as safe as possible. But cops assume a risk when they sign up for the job. That risk involves putting the safety of others above their own. That's kind of the whole point of having law enforcement officers in the first place. Many of the older cops I interviewed for the book told me that sense of sacrifice -- really the public service aspect of the job -- has been lost over the last few decades.

Of course, there are other factors that have contributed to the psychological isolation of police. One example is the move from foot patrols to squad cars or, more broadly, from proactive to reactive policing. When cops walk beats, they become a part of the communities they patrol. Residents see them out and about. They learn names, faces and places. When police patrol in cruisers, they're walled off from neighborhoods. Most of their interactions with the public on a typical day will be the result of conflict or confrontation. Imagine a job where nearly all of your interactions with other people are negative -- you're either confronting someone you suspect has done something wrong, dealing with a volatile domestic dispute, or responding to a complaint about a crime, most always after that crime has been committed. No matter what your job, if most of your interactions with other people are negative, it's going to make for a pretty miserable existence. Now add a baton, a gun, a Taser, and the authority to use force.

So we have cops whose interactions with the public are negative the vast majority of the time, who are constantly told they're fighting a war, and who are constantly reminded that their job is highly dangerous and getting more dangerous, and that they could be killed by anyone at any time. When they start to see the people they serve as the enemy, they begin to treat them that way. The people in the communities treated that way then respond in kind. Thus, we get the hostile, often volatile cop-community relationships we see in too much of the country today, in which citizens don't trust cops enough to help them solve crimes, and cops feel so threatened and isolated that even well-meaning officers won't report fellow officers who break the law.

The fact that cops are safer today than they've been in a half century is great news. It should be big news. It's something we ought to be celebrating. Reporting that and challenging -- or at least attempting to verify -- opposing pronouncements from law enforcement groups would not only be getting the story right; it would help with the problem of cops who see people as the threat and their jobs as a mere quest for survival.

No, better reporting probably won't eliminate these problems. But it will at least stop contributing to them.

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