With only a couple weeks to go, 2013 is shaping up to be the safest year for police officers since the 1950s.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 97 police officers have died on the job so far this year. That's down 15 percent from this time last year. And last year, 120 cops died, the lowest raw number since 1959. If you look at the rate of fatalities -- cops who died as a percentage of cops on duty -- we're looking at the safest era for cops in over a century.
Even these figures include non-homicide deaths like heart attacks or car accidents. Actual violence against police officers is dropping even more dramatically. This year, for example, firearms-related officer fatalities are down 38 percent from last year, and last year was already among the lowest in decades.
The overall police fatality rate has been falling pretty consistently for quite a while. But even good news can be framed to look bad. In 2010 and 2011, for example, there was slight uptick in the raw number of officer fatalities. It's increasingly looking like this was little more than statistical blip -- again, it came after 15 years of decline. But that slight increase in 2011 still led to a wave of panicky stories in which reporters and police groups speculated about what ominous trends could be responsible for this "surge" in violence. Among the suggestions: citizens recording cops with their cell phones, brazen criminals, anti-government rhetoric from Tea Party types, increased gun ownership, budget cuts, and the proliferation of "cop watch" sites on the Internet. Well, now it's nearly 2014. The cell phone videos continue. The Tea Party is still around. Gun ownership is about the same. Budgets are still tight. And cop watch sites are spreading. Curiously (or perhaps not), there were no stories last year -- and there have been none that I can find so far this year -- exonerating those trends now that police fatalities are dropping again.
I suspect we'll see some coverage of the drop, but if it's like past coverage, police groups will credit new powers, weapons, and policing tactics for the good news. It's a clever way to frame the discussion. If police fatalities go up, we need to give police more power to protect themselves. If police fatalities go down, it's because the new powers we've given police are working. The result is a one-way public policy ratchet.
Assaults on police officers have been dropping, too. This suggests that bigger guns, more aggressive tactics, and even improved body armor may not necessarily be responsible for the drop in fatalities. It isn't just that people are less successful at killing cops, it's that they're less likely to try. The public may be more willing to criticize police, and cell phone videos and cop watch sites may be exposing and bringing new attention to bad cops, but it's all being done peacefully. There's no evidence that this heightened public scrutiny is leading to violence.
The real cause for the drop is probably related to whatever trends are responsible for the drop in overall crime over about the same period. Criminologists are still putting out theories for that, but have yet to come to a consensus.
None of this is to diminish the genuine bravery many cops display while doing their jobs, or to say that the job doesn't come with some risks. But our neighborhoods aren't war zones -- far from it. Yet cops are constantly reminded of how dangerous their jobs are. They regularly hear warnings like, "Treat every interaction as if it could be your last." This can created a tendency for police officers to see the people they serve not as citizens with rights, but as potential threats.
This may be why officer-involved shootings are actually increasing in many jurisdictions, even as attacks on cops and overall crime is in decline. (It's hard to say if officer-involved shootings are up nationwide. While several government agencies and private groups keep track of cops killed and assaulted on the job, there's no comprehensive national data on how often police shoot at citizens.)
This is all very good news. We should be celebrating it, and letting cops everywhere know that their chosen career is as safe today as it has been in a century.