Stories of police officers being injured or killed have gotten a lot of traction recently, fueling a narrative that police officers are “under siege” (Fox News), “under attack” (Yahoo! News), “demonized,” and “demoralized” (MSNBC) by a “war on cops” (Fox News). Some accuse those seeking criminal justice reform of having blood on their hands (Fox News). President Biden seemed to endorse this view in his State of the Union address. He mentioned the deaths of two NYPD officers before declaring, “the answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities” (NBC Bay Area). Any death is a tragedy. It is precisely why calls to transform American policing are so urgent. But conversations on safety for police officers often misrepresent reality. We must analyze how stories about slain and injured officers are weaponized to protect policing. Let’s look objectively at the nature of law enforcement and police job safety.
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Many people believe, as a matter of common sense, that:
- Police officers protect all of us.
- They take on the highest personal risk to do so.
- Injuries to law enforcement are, therefore, the worst acts of all.
- And any policies that protect officer safety are therefore justified.
Rejecting this largely-unspoken shared belief is enough to get one branded a dangerous radical at best and a monster at worst in many social circles. But as the highly publicized deaths of so many innocent Black and Brown people demonstrate, the first point simply isn’t true. The police do not protect a Black teenager in a working-class St. Louis suburb like they’d protect a white hedge fund manager in the Hamptons (Pew Research). They do not protect unhoused sex workers (SWOP) like they protect politicians and real estate developers (The Urbanist, Capital News Service, Teen Vogue).
Even the consensus that police officers have one of the most dangerous jobs imaginable is flawed. A closer look at police job safety compared to other occupations paints a more complex picture. Police officers are, of course, injured and killed at work. But statistically, being a police officer is less dangerous than being a roofer, crossing guard, garbage collector, or delivery driver. In the U.S., it’s logging workers who have the riskiest job, dying at work at almost six times the rate police do (AdvisorSmith).
It’s horrifying that anyone should lose their life trying to get to the end of the workday. But we aren’t rewriting national policy to address roofer safety. The construction of new roads isn’t stalled because of crossing guard fatalities. Garbage collector deaths will never be the signature issue of a presidential campaign. All these occupations are socially necessary and benefit us all. Yet, only the injuries of law enforcement officers can derail demands for needed change.
The deaths of police officers are regarded as unacceptable, while the deaths of a larger number of farmworkers and groundskeepers go uncontested (AdvisorSmith). Just like there are some countries where war is expected and others where it’s shocking, the deaths of crossing guards and loggers are tolerable in a way that harm to law enforcement isn’t.
There are severe double standards as to what level of suffering and death is considered acceptable depending on the race, wealth, and status of the people involved. Each year, a certain number of people will die from “accidents” like working-class apartments combusting. They are “deeply racialized, and class-divided causes of death,” since such catastrophes don’t befall luxury condominiums at nearly the same rate (NYTimes).
Nobody thinks that being a police officer doesn’t involve risk. The narrative, however, that police are now “under attack” is being used to cover up the fact that last year saw the most murders by police of any year since the Washington Post began tracking them (Washington Post). And the number of Black people killed by police has only increased since the 2020 protests (NBC News). It isn’t that reform’s gone too far — it’s that it was never fully implemented. People of all political persuasions agree that police job safety matters. If only they would agree that Black lives matter, too.
- Some believe that criticizing the police led to anti-police attacks.
- Being a crossing guard or farmer is more dangerous than being a police officer.
- In general, the deaths of poor people and people of color are tolerated more than those of wealthy white people.