From protect and serve, to kill or be killed

I’m not the first to notice it, but when did a war mentality engulf American police departments? When did it go from “protect and serve” to “kill or be killed.”

Al Baker from the New York Times put it this way in 2011:

What seems clear is that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and the federal Homeland Security dollars that flowed to police forces in response to them, have further encouraged police forces to embrace paramilitary tactics like those that first emerged in the decades-long “war on drugs.”

Both wars — first on drugs, then terror — have lent police forces across the country justification to acquire the latest technology, equipment and tactical training for newly created specialized units.

. . .

More disturbing than riot gear or heavy-duty weapons slung across the backs of American police officers is a “militaristic mind-set” creeping into officers’ approach to their jobs, said Timothy Lynch, director of the criminal justice project at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “It is in the way they search and raid homes and the way they deal with the public,” he said.

Some might argue this is a reflection of the high percentage of police officers killed in the line of duty. The numbers don’t support that line of thinking, as Radley Blako points out in the Huffington Post today:

Last year was the safest year for cops since the early 1960s. And it isn’t just because the police are carrying bigger guns or have better armor. Assaults on police officers have been dropping over the same period. Which means that not only are fewer cops getting killed on the job, people in general are less inclined to try to hurt them. Yes, working as a police officer is still more dangerous than, say, working as a journalist. (Or at least a journalist here in the U.S.) But a cop today is about as likely to be murdered on the job as someone who merely resides in about half of the country’s 75 largest cities.

According to the Labor Department, the 10 most dangerous professions in the United States are:

1. Fishers and Related Fishing Workers 121.2 Fatalities per 100,000 workers 40 total number of fatal injuries
2. Logging Workers 102.4 64
3. Aircraft Pilots and Flight Engineers 57.0 72
4. Refuse and Recyclable Material Collectors 41.2 34
5. Roofers 31.8 56
6. Structural Iron and Steel Workers 26.9 16
7. Farmers, Ranchers, and Other Agricultural Managers 25.3 260
8. Driver/Sales Workers and Truck Drivers 24.0 759
9. Electrical Power Line Installers 20.3 27
10. Taxi Drivers and Chauffeurs 19.7 63

Where do police officers fall on this list? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics police work had a fatality rate of 1.56 per 100,000. That is well below the 3.5 per 100,000 death rate for the average American worker.

And many police fatalities don’t come from where you would expect, as NBC news explains:

Traffic-related incidents remained the biggest hazard, however, as they have been nearly every year since the late 1990s. But they, too, fell significantly, from 60 last year to 50 this year. [2011-2012]

The NHTSA and the memorial fund launched their own Officer Safety Initiative in August 2011, funding research and public information campaigns around police safety in traffic-related incidents. 

A breakdown for 2012 wasn’t reported, but the campaign noted that 42 percent of officers killed in auto crashes over the last 30 years weren’t wearing safety belts. It said nearly all those deaths were preventable.

I don’t bring these numbers up not to denigrate police officers. They are vital to public safety and our communities are safer with well trained officers on the streets and with experienced and able detectives investigating crimes.

This issue is important because of how we behave in response to real and perceived threats. Again, Radley Blako makes the case:

When cops are told that every day on the job could be their last, that every morning they say goodbye to their families could be the last time they see their kids, that everyone they encounter is someone who could possibly kill them, it isn’t difficult to see how they might start to see the people they serve as an enemy. Again, in truth, the average cop has no more reason to see the people he interacts with day to day as a threat to his safety than does the average resident of St. Louis or Los Angeles or Nashville, where I live.

The public can fall into this threat trap as well.

Think of it this way, between 2002 and 2011 there were 146,253 alcohol related traffic deaths in the United States. Do you remember any big push to put a breathalyzer in every car? Do you remember hearing about a push to spend a trillion dollars on traffic safety? Your chance of dying in a terrorist attack are about 1 in 80,000, about the same chance of getting killed by a meteor. Actually you have a far better chance of dying in your bathtub.

Yet after 9/11 President Bush and President Obama, with the consent of Congress, convinced the American people to go to war in Afghanistan & Iraq, imprison Americans without trial, spy on US citizens, and as we recently discovered, execute Americans by drone strike without trial. How? Because we were scared. We came to believe that we could die any second in a terrorist attack and therefore sending our troops overseas, spending trillions of dollars, and subverting the constitution were a perfectly rational thing to do.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go after terrorists or take common sense steps to protect ourselves. We should. What it means is that we should remind ourselves that questions are important, that it is easy to fall into the trap of believing a threat is real when it really isn’t.

Remember when parents wouldn’t let their kids out of the house because of strangers? Turns out the vast majority of crimes against children, including abductions, are done by family members or someone the child knows. Did the fear generated by the media make us more or less safe? Again, statistics tell us no. Instead, we could have looked at the numbers and spent more time and resources investigating what really causes children to be abused, abducted or worse.

To police officers and firefighters, thank you for your service. I’m very happy to pay taxes so that you can earn a decent living and help keep me and my family safe. Just keep in mind that you are not at war, you are a partner with the public in preventing crime. Seeing everyone as the enemy only means that people will see you as one too.

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