The fatal shooting of two NYPD officers late last December capped a series of events that had put policing into the national spotlight and sparked heated debate about what happens when the public starts viewing law enforcement with a more skeptical eye.
Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were parked in their squad car when a gunman with a long criminal record and history of mental problems ambushed them. Earlier in the day, the shooter had killed his girlfriend. He'd ultimately end his murder spree by taking his own life in a New York subway station.
The officers were among the 51 killed in the line of duty in 2014. Their deaths provided a contrast to a series of nationwide protests over high-profile incidents that had commanded nationwide attention: the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland and the exonerations of some of the officers involved in those cases and others.
Amid the mounting scrutiny of police conduct, the brutal murders of these officers gave rise to a different narrative that would carry into the new year: All of the criticism of police was promoting violence against officers, some supporters of law enforcement said. This, they alleged, was no less than a "war on cops."
The data never supported such a claim -- not in 2014 and not at any point since -- but that didn't keep people from repeating it so much that it became a recurring segment on Fox News. Now, however, figures for this year show that despite the anxious rhetoric, 2015 was in fact one of the safest years ever for police officers.
A total of 36 police officers were fatally shot in the line of duty this year, according to Officer Down Memorial Page, a website that independently tracks a broad range of data on law enforcement deaths. Four of the officers included on its list are K-9 units, however. An additional two officers were killed by suspects who used vehicles as a weapon, which brings the human total to 34.
This number, while not official, would mark one of the lowest annual totals in more than 50 years of reporting. Twenty-seven officers were killed as a result of felonious acts in 2013, according to the FBI, the record low in recent decades.
An average of 64 law enforcement officers have been feloniously killed each year since 1980, the FBI reported earlier this year. With 51 officers slain in the line of duty in 2014, it was still a below-average year, despite ticking upward from the previous year. And while any officer's death is tragic, we finished 2015 with about half the annual average number of police officers killed in the line of duty.
It becomes even clearer that policing is getting safer when you look at broader trends. Mark Perry of the conservative American Enterprise Institute recently compared a wider set of law enforcement fatality data from ODMP against U.S. population trends dating back to the 1870s. The chart below shows deadly attacks against police in steady decline since the mid-1970s.
Compare current numbers to the 1970s, when gun-related police deaths were about six times higher than they are today. Or during the Prohibition era, which saw police deaths involving firearms at rates 14 to 17 times higher than present day.
Police are also facing less nonlethal violence today. While the FBI hasn’t released data for 2015, the data through 2014 clearly illustrates a downward trend in assaults against cops over the last decade. Seth Stoughton, a law professor and former police officer, charted the 2014 FBI assault data earlier this year:
If by "war on cops," the pro-law enforcement crowd meant "a watershed moment when people began reacting to disturbing incidents with aggressive calls for systemic change to a profession that has long avoided it," perhaps they'd be right. But the "war" these people spoke of was never rhetorical. They repeatedly lobbed this accusation with the intent of making it sound like the increasingly vocal criticism intimated a real threat of violence against cops who, in reality, continued to experience some of the safest conditions in history.
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