For example, it is more risky to become a firefighter than it is to become an accountant. But firefighters perform an important job, and they are willing to accept the increased risks.
Another job that is supposedly dangerous is that of a police officer. In the line of duty, a police officer may have to chase down armed robbers, subdue crazed drug addicts, or even go undercover to infiltrate the ranks of the “bad guys”. But, as I had learned, these are risks that police officers are willing to take, because it is so important to them to help protect us innocent civilians.
The message was always that the cops are our friends. Nay, they are heroes, risking it all to protect that thin blue line between chaos and a happy, free society. To become a police officer was to join the ranks of an honorary profession, where all members are brave, just, and deserving of respect.
At the time, I didn’t realize this was all a lie.
In The Line of Duty
I have no doubt that there are risks to police work. Cops do occasionally find themselves staring at the wrong end of a weapon, facing uncertainty with regards to whether they are dealing with friend or foe, and so on.
Given these obvious risks, you would expect that police are injured and even killed in the line of duty rather often, or at least significantly moreso than most occupations.
And yet, police officer is not even in the top 10 most dangerous occupations based on workplace fatalities.
Here are occupations more dangerous than being a police officer. Number of deaths per 100,000 employed:
- Logging workers: 127.8
- Fishermen: 117.0
- Aircraft pilots: 53.4
- Roofers: 40.5
- Garbage collectors: 36.8
- Electrical power line installation/repair: 29.8
- Truck drivers: 22.8
- Oil and gas extraction: 21.9
- Farmers and ranchers: 21.3
- Construction workers: 17.4
Why do we not revere truck drivers for the risks they are taking to provide the incredibly valuable service of moving products to where they need to be, or roofers for protecting us from the elements?
The FBI makes available statistics on police officers being killed or assaulted each year. In 2012 (the most recent year available), there were a total of 95 officers who died in the line of duty, but in only 48 did the officer die under felonious circumstances (in other words, not accidental).
Let me throw a few more statistics at you, several of which are from this great analysis at the Foundation of Economic Education:
- Since 1791, there have been 20,267 cops who have died in the line of duty.
- Since 1900, there have been 18,781 cops who have died in the line of duty, which equates to an average of 164 per year. This includes both homicides and accidental deaths.
- Assuming half of these deaths are homicides, that makes the homicide rate of cops about equal to the average homicide rate in American cities. Historically, only about one third of these deaths are actually homicides, making it considerably safer to be a cop than to live in an average city.
- There has been a steady downward trend in police fatalities since the 1970s.
In other words, it’s not exceptionally risky to be a police officer. These people are hardly taking unprecedented risks to “keep us safe”.
To Serve and Protect
In their daily lives, police officers are perfectly capable of being kind, friendly individuals. Many police officers are good parents and friends, donate money to charity, and engage in other pro-social behavior. Even I, an avowed anarchist, know and personally like a handful of police officers or aspiring cops.
That being said, it is irrelevant. Most people are friendly and nice in their daily lives. Far more relevant is what police officers do with the additional powers that they are given over the rest of us.
The government does not collect data on unjustified police homicides (hmm, I wonder why), so it isn’t possible to get an exact number. Unofficial reports suggest that police kill up to and over a thousand civilians per year, but more generally accepted estimates are of approximately 500 innocent civilians per year since 9/11. These estimates tend to be compiled from news sources, which makes me think that they would be on the low side if some police homicides go unreported in the news.
Regardless of the exact number, it is abundantly clear that police are killed only a fraction as often as they are killing. Very roughly, cops are murdered approximately 1/10th as often as they murder innocent civilians. A police officer is approximately 130 times more likely to be implicated in an act of misconduct than to be killed in the line of duty over their career.
Does that sound heroic? Does that sound like police are here “to protect and serve”?
The stated intention of police is to protect our liberties. If this were the case, you’d think that cops would be victims far more often than they would be assailants. After all, the job is supposed to be dangerous, and cops are supposed to be taking risks to protect civilians, right?
Of course, the reality is that cops do not exist to protect us or our liberties. A commonly cited case is that of Warren vs. District of Columbia, where the Supreme Court ruled that police have no duty to protect members of the public. Similar decisions have been upheld on numerous occasions.
Not having a duty to protect the life and property of citizens (which is the stated function of the police anyways) is bad enough, but police tend to be a major danger to people as well. In fact, cops are three times more likely to commit domestic homicide than concealed carry permit holders (who, of course, are regularly and erroneously derided for being a danger to the public). Amazingly, 40% of police households have reported domestic violence, compared to 10% in other households.
Why are levels of domestic violence so much higher among police than the rest of the population? I can’t give any conclusive answers, but the type of people who want to become “public servants” are self-selected for dishonest and corrupt behavior. In other words, people who are more inclined to become politicians, police officers, etc., are precisely the kinds of people who are likely to abuse their powers.
Beyond this, there is simply a culture of violence and authoritarianism among police officers. Obviously, the militarization of police plays a part in this, but I think it is more fundamentally about police officers viewing themselves as “armed badasses”. I don’t have empirical evidence to back this up, but there is more than enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is the case (as I think most people who have ever had to deal with a cop would agree).
Reasons aside, police violence is a very real threat. Whether it be killing over 5300 dogs per year, or a police couple murdering their daughter’s boyfriend, police violence is incredibly frequent. Anyone who is paying attention will find a multitude of new cases of excessive force and police abuse every day – but most of these accounts rarely make it past the local news (the recent events in Ferguson are an exception). Perhaps that is because they are so frequent that instances of excessive force don’t even qualify as interesting news these days.
Don’t believe me? A Department of Justice study found that 84% of police report that they’ve seen colleagues use excessive force on civilians, and 61% say they don’t report even serious infractions by fellow officers. The police code of silence and persecution of officers who report misconduct surely contribute to these horrid numbers.
How can people consider the police a group of brave men and women who are a force for good in society despite the volumes of evidence to the contrary? Furthermore, how is it even possible that police abuse and misconduct is so widespread and unchallenged?
Systemic Factors Make Police Abuse More Likely
The “friendly police officer” is a dying breed. I won’t deny that there are some police officers who not only are good people outside of work, but genuinely try to do a good job upholding the law in a moral sense (as an anarchist, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “good cop”, but you get my point). Their dwindling numbers may be a product of cultural change, but there are also definite systemic reasons why police abuse is becoming increasingly likely.
I will cover a handful of the more obvious ones here.
Misconduct is Rarely Investigated or Pursued
Imagine a company that never allowed refunds or returns. Furthermore, imagine that this company had a legally enforced monopoly on its services. How do you think that would turn out?
Right. Most people would agree that this company would hardly be responsive to complaints about their lack of services, high cost, and mishandling of situations.
This is exactly what happens for police departments nationwide. Police departments make their money through a combination of more hidden and indirect theft like taxes as well as armed robbery, such as traffic tickets and civil asset forfeiture. The police have almost zero incentive to please their “customers” (aka victims).
Consider Chicago between 2002 and 2004, where there were over 10,000 complaints of police abuse, yet only 19 resulted in meaningful disciplinary action. And consider Central New Jersey, where 99% of police brutality complaints go completely uninvestigated. The national average is still a meager 8% that are investigated, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
And consider this from USA Today, which partly explains how dangerous the myth of police heroism really is:
Last year, 96% of cases referred for prosecution by investigative agencies were declined.
In 2005, 98% were declined, a rate that has remained “extremely high” under every administration dating to President Carter, according to a TRAC report.
The high refusal rates, say Burnham and law enforcement analysts, result in part from the extraordinary difficulty in prosecuting abuse cases. Juries are conditioned to believe cops, and victims’ credibility is often challenged.
“When police are accused of wrongdoing, the world is turned upside down,” Harris says. “In some cases, it may be impossible for (juries) to make the adjustment.”
Most people understand the futility of complaining about police misconduct. Just consider how few people will actually fight traffic tickets, simply because they know that they will lose. I’d be willing to bet this has a chilling effect on the number of complaints in general. Why would you go to the effort of filing a complaint if it is a near certainty that it will not be addressed?
Lack of Training
Most police departments are given training that is horribly inadequate with regards to the use of nonviolent methods. In general, there is less required training to become a police officer than there is to get a license to be a barber or hairstylist.
Specifically, police training is sorely lacking in the areas of how to deal with family pets and with the mentally ill. Perhaps that is why so many dogs are needlessly butchered, and why interactions with the mentally ill make up such a large portion of police misconduct cases.
The clearest example I could find of the failure of police training is the police firearms instructor who shot an 8th grader seven times. This is despite having 19 years’ experience as a firearms instructor and 24 years on the force. How can people tolerate this negligence?
Qualified immunity is the doctrine that government officials, primarily police officers, are exempt from liability for their actions unless it violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right. In practice, this has meant that so long as a police officer claims that they felt that they were in danger, they are legally immune.
Essentially, the benefit of the doubt is given to police officers over the citizens who may be filing a suit against them. And it is a judge who gets to make this call, rather than a jury.
The operative word is “intention.” As most federal and state laws mandate, as long as an officer feels his life is in danger, he has the power to use deadly force. The law tends not to punish officers if that threat turns out not to be real.
“These cases are political,” Sanders, who served 13 years with the NYPD, said. “That’s what no one is talking about. Whenever you talk about charging police officers, it’s very political. Is society ready to face the fact that you have police officers who may not be upholding the law? No. Otherwise, you’d be afraid of police forces all over the United States. People want to believe police officers are beyond reproach but that’s not reality. So when the Justice Department makes its decision, the Supreme Court makes its decision, it’s based on giving the police the benefit of the doubt. It has nothing to do with objectivity. It has to do with subjective feelings of, ‘I don’t think they’d do something intentional like that.’ That’s the problem.”
This is not merely an empty statement of “incentives”; there is quite a lot of empirical evidence to back it up. What happens when cops are accused of misconduct? Nationwide, one out of every three accused cops end up being convicted. Contrast that with the conviction rate for civilians, which is two out of three. Think about that for a moment: civilians accused of crimes are literally twice as likely to be convicted as police officers are.
Cops aren’t just convicted less often than the general population; they are incarcerated less often, and receive significantly less jail time. This is bad across the country, but is particularly pronounced in Washington State (and in Washington DC, the prosecution rate is a mere 5% for police officers). There are plenty of more disturbing statistics in that article, I want to focus on the conclusion:
In each of these cases juries discounted or ignored the testimony of police officers against the accused and/or video evidence supporting the charges…
…An examination of the numbers indicates that, while law enforcement officers generally enjoy favorable treatment when facing criminal charges in the US generally, the problem appears significantly pronounced in Washington State. When we examine the data in combination with the history of criminal cases involving police officers in Washington it begins to appear as though the reason why police officers are so infrequently prosecuted is a combination of laws that prevent officers from being held accountable, juries who consistently refuse to convict police officers accused of criminal acts even when there is compelling testimony and evidence in favor of conviction, and prosecutors who appear risk averse when it comes to the prospects of prosecuting police officers for any reason.
Those reasons apply not just to Washington State, but anywhere that qualified immunity prevails. In other words, across the nation.
Police Need Not Suffer the Consequences of Their Actions
And it’s not just the fact that police officers get favorable treatment in court, resulting in 29% less jail time than the rest of us (source: previous article on Washington State). The system itself makes it so that police are effectively not liable for any damages they cause.
Much of this is a consequence of the Police Officer Bill of Rights. These exist in most areas of the country, and make it nearly impossible to fire a police officer for misconduct. From the article:
Unlike a member of the public, the officer gets a “cooling off” period before he has to respond to any questions. Unlike a member of the public, the officer under investigation is privy to the names of his complainants and their testimony against him before he is ever interrogated. Unlike a member of the public, the officer under investigation is to be interrogated “at a reasonable hour,” with a union member present. Unlike a member of the public, the officer can only be questioned by one person during his interrogation. Unlike a member of the public, the officer can be interrogated only “for reasonable periods,” which “shall be timed to allow for such personal necessities and rest periods as are reasonably necessary.” Unlike a member of the public, the officer under investigation cannot be “threatened with disciplinary action” at any point during his interrogation. If he is threatened with punishment, whatever he says following the threat cannot be used against him.
What happens after the interrogation again varies from state to state. But under nearly every law enforcement bill of rights, the following additional privileges are granted to officers: Their departments cannot publicly acknowledge that the officer is under investigation; if the officer is cleared of wrongdoing or the charges are dropped, the department may not publicly acknowledge that the investigation ever took place, or reveal the nature of the complaint. The officer cannot be questioned or investigated by “non-government agents,” which means no civilian review boards. If the officer is suspended as a result of the investigation, he must continue to receive full pay and benefits until his case is resolved. In most states, the charging department must subsidize the accused officer’s legal defense.
A violation of any of the above rights can result in dismissal—not of the officer, but of the charges against him.
If you read almost any article about investigations into police misconduct, you’ll see that the police officer ends up being “suspended with pay”. In other words, the consequence of misconduct is a paid vacation, at the taxpayers’ expense.
Speaking of taxpayers, what happens if it is determined that the police officer actually misbehaved? Any settlement that the prosecution wins ends up being paid out by the police department – as in, by the taxpayer. The officer himself is rarely liable for his actions.
Police officers are hardly the courageous heroes that the establishment would like for you to believe. While there may be a handful of police officers who are genuinely good people, their ranks are shrinking, and for entirely predictable and structural reasons.
In reality, police officers are vastly more dangerous to the public than they are protective. When the system is stacked in favor of the police in any dispute, and the police have arbitrary powers over the people they are supposed to protect, abuse of those powers will be rampant.
People need to understand that the police are dangerous, not heroic. And until there is a mass realization of this fact, cops will continue to get unjust, favorable treatment at our expense.