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When talking about policing dangers, look at the data

Heeding the admonition of NYPD Commissioner William Bratton

Heeding the admonition of NYPD Commissioner William Bratton that a funeral is for grieving not grievances, a lone police officer stands front on Jan. 4, 2015, as hundreds of officers witnessing the funeral of Det. Wenjian Liu turned their backs on a television screen showing Mayor Bill de Blasio as he spoke in honor of the Liu who was slain execution-style on Dec. 20 as he sat in a patrol car in Brooklyn. Photo Credit: AP / John Minchillo

Despite universal outrage at the shooting deaths of NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, some have attempted to use the tragedy to undermine Mayor Bill de Blasio's civilian control of police.

At funeral services for Ramos and Liu, this political petulance hoped to mobilize a grief constituency through invocations of the dangers police face from homicidal criminals. Police Commissioner William Bratton's eulogy was packed with several illuminating passages. "Every time I attend a cop's funeral, I pray that it will be the last. But I know it won't . . . Here we are to remember . . .," he said. "No other profession will give you as much, or sometimes, take as much."

Mourners also echoed the commemoration of the sentiments of danger, remembrance and fraternity. "We came here to show our respects," Mark Porter, a 48-year-old police sergeant from Coronado, California, told The New York Times. "The people don't realize what danger cops face."

Not content to merely remind (read: lecture) the mass audience about danger, uniformed members of the force acted with insubordination toward the mayor, in part for speaking forthrightly with his son about the dangers that police represent to people they deem suspects.

While we could debate the legitimacy of dueling perceptions -- the public servants' or the father's -- I prefer opinion that is informed not by grief and anecdotes, but by data.

The stories the numbers tell are less open to interpretation: Police are safer on the streets today than they have been since the high point of 1973, when there were 134 felony killings of police officers. According to the most recently released data from Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Bureau of Labor Statistics figures on workplace fatal, job-related incidents, there were 94 police fatalities in 2013. Twenty-nine of those were defined as homicides, of which 26 resulted from intentional shootings.

For today's police, accidents are deadlier than felons: In 2013, 49 law enforcement officers died from on-the-job accidents, most of them from vehicles. Death-by-vehicle is a terrible loss for any family -- but it has little to do with de Blasio's support of protesters' freedom of speech and assembly.

Today's police force also face less risk of on-the-job injury also die less than workers in other professions. With workforces of differing sizes, we can analyze comparative danger using the injury rate per 100,000 full-time workers in 2013. For police, the injury rate was 10.6, nearly identical to overall deaths from traffic (10.8) and from being self-employed (11.1). By injury rate, first-line supervisors of landscaping, lawn service and grounds keeping workers (15.5), fishing (75) and logging (91.3) are the most dangerous occupations.

Still, policing is seen as a dangerous job. We expect cops to run toward danger when most of us would run away from it. But danger-in-general is not the same thing as danger-of-death, and it is through the latter that police allies argue society should prioritize the safety of police and order over the safety of citizens who come into contact with officers.

Yet the latter danger has greatly lessened over time. Media narratives that privilege officer accounts about the dangers of their jobs, especially after they have killed (a likely unarmed) citizen, are misleading. Concerns about danger can no longer excuse the offensive and incendiary rhetoric of police allies in their embarrassing displays of solidarity with the "I am Darren Wilson" arm bands, showing the mayor and grieving families their backs, and wearing shirts that proclaim "I can breathe."

Moreover, lies about danger cannot be allowed to quell the reasonable social mobilization concerning policing and the deadly footprint of a big police state. Using existing nongovernment data, members of law enforcement killed 320 people in 2013, roughly a 12:1 ratio of citizens killed to police officers killed.

Blue lives already matter -- even police dogs get funerals with full honors for dying in the line of duty -- so why can't we also affirm that #SuspectsLivesMatter, too?

John Stevenson is a researcher focused on political violence at the University of Maryland in College Park.


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