Last year was one of the safest years on record for U.S. police, FBI data released Tuesday confirmed. The numbers follow a sustained downward trend in police deaths over recent decades, despite mounting concerns from police union bosses and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who maintain that violence against law enforcement is on the rise.
Forty-one U.S. law enforcement officers were intentionally killed in the line of duty in 2015, according to the FBI’s statistics, published annually as part of the agency’s Uniform Crime Report. Although annual figures tend to fluctuate, the past four years have seen historic lows in police fatalities. There were 20 percent fewer line-of-duty deaths last year than in 2014, but the totals marked about a 50 percent increase from an all-time low in 2013, when 27 officers were killed.
Of course police work comes with inherent hazards and every fatal incident is tragic, but widening the historical scope shows that policing is safer in the U.S. today than it has ever been before. In the 1970s, intentional police deaths were regularly six times higher than at present. And in the alcohol prohibition era, police deaths rocketed to as high as 17 times what we see today.
The FBI also reports that 50,212 officers were assaulted in the line of duty 2015, with 28 percent of them sustaining injuries as a result. These numbers are consistent with totals over the previous decade, though assaults have also been falling in recent years.
In other words, the data does not support claims from conservative media outlets, police union bosses and Trump, who claim that increased scrutiny of police and demand for reform has encouraged a so-called “war on cops.” Although there is some debate about whether widespread criticism of police brutality has made policing more difficult, some on the right have worked to portray this not as an ideological war, but a literal one.
Arguments like this may be convincing to the public, but are not grounded in reality, say researchers.
“I do not believe that there is a ‘war on cops,’” Philip Stinson, a former police officer who is now a criminologist at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, told The Huffington Post. “It is business as usual in policing.”
Still, the conversation around policing has changed in recent years. The controversial 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, catapulted issues of race and law enforcement into the national limelight. The seemingly constant stream of incidents, often captured by smartphones or police body cameras, has kept them there. This has led to more aggressive criticism of police by the Black Lives Matter movement and other civil rights organizations. Their opponents argue that these groups have fomented a hostile environment for police. But there’s no evidence to suggest that this climate is actually causing officers to be killed at higher rates.
“While we mourn even one death of a police officer, what we see in the data is very consistent with prior years and even a noticeable drop from 2014,” David Harris, a professor of law at University of Pittsburgh School of Law who studies policing, told HuffPost.
“2015 was a year with a lot of criticism of police, let’s face it,” Harris added. “And no matter how you stand on that, what we can say for sure is that does not seem to have resulted in more police officer deaths.”
The conversation around policing has only gotten more passionate in 2016. Questionable police shootings of civilians have continued with disturbing regularity this year, while July’s fatal attacks on police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, helped propel the war on cops narrative into the presidential campaign.
“The war on our police must end and it must end now,” Trump said in August.
But again, there is no evidence to suggest that these examples of violence are any more prominent in 2016 than they have in the modern policing era, under presidential administrations stretching back to Jimmy Carter. In the first 10 months of the year, 45 officers have been killed by gunfire, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a website that independently tracks a broad range of data on law enforcement deaths stretching back over 100 years. An additional 10 officers have been killed by vehicular assault, two have died due to general “assault” and one has been stabbed to death.
It’s not clear if the FBI will define these deaths as “felonious killings,” or in other words intentional killings, but the data does suggest there will be a slight uptick in line-of-duty deaths over last year. But again, it’s important to look at long-term trends. An average of 64 law enforcement officers have been feloniously killed each year since 1980, according to FBI data. The last three years have seen fatal attacks on police that are well below that number. This year has already outpaced those historic lows, but it remains to be seen how they will compare to a year like 2011, for example, in which 72 officers were killed in the line of duty.
“When all is said and done, it won’t be outside the recent statistical trend, it will be well within it,” predicted Harris.
Of course, Trump’s rhetoric goes far beyond his supposed desire to keep cops safe. He’s since framed the “law and order” issue as a matter of warfare, saying police need to be “tougher” and that they should be allowed to go on the “counter-attack” against those who might attack them. He’s also called for police in the nation’s cities to return to using controversial “stop-and-frisk” programs, a source of intense criticism against law enforcement in recent years. This is the exact kind of “demeaning and humiliating” policy of “indirect racial profiling” that led a federal judge to ban the practice in New York City. All of this has played out against a backdrop of racial division at the core of Trump’s campaign, which has left him winking at white supremacists, while denigrating people of color, immigrants and Muslims.
Cherry-picking data to push an agenda may be politically expedient, but it’s also disingenuous.
“Any suggestion in the political arena that there is a ‘war on cops,’ Stinson said, “is symbolic political crime control rhetoric exaggerated by the fact that it is an election year.”