Scott Walker Couldn’t be More Wrong About the Threat to Police Officers
By Radley Balko
September 3, 2015
Over at the Hot Air blog, Wisconsin governor and GOP presidential candidate Scott Walker put up a post about the killing of police officers. Here’s an excerpt:
Over the last week, we’ve seen a disturbing trend of police officers being murdered on the job. Texas Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth was killed Friday, gunned down while pumping gas for no apparent reason other than the uniform on his back. And just yesterday, in my neighboring state of Illinois, police Lt. Charles Joseph Gliniewicz was assassinated by three men, who are still on the run.
This isn’t the America I grew up in or that I want my children to grow up in. When the very people responsible for keeping us safe are targeted because they are law enforcement officials, we have a serious problem.
In the last six years under President Obama, we’ve seen a rise in anti-police rhetoric. Instead of hope and change, we’ve seen racial tensions worsen and a tendency to use law enforcement as a scapegoat. This kind of attitude has created a culture in which we all too often see demonstrations and chants where people describe police as “pigs” and call for them to be “fried like bacon.” This inflammatory and disgusting rhetoric has real consequences for the safety of officers who put their lives on the line for us and hampers their ability to serve the communities that need their help.
Walker is right in one sense. The America in which police officers work today is quite a bit different from America when Scott Walker was growing up. But it’s different in that it’s much safer to be a cop today.
Walker was born in 1967. In a blog post a few months ago, my former intern Dan Wang looked at the fatality and homicide figures for police going back to the 1960s. Here are a few notable numbers he found:
- “More officers were feloniously killed in the 11 years between 1970 and 1980 (1228 deaths) than in the 21 years between 1993 and 2013 (1182 deaths).” Walker would have been 3 in 1970 and 13 in 1980.
- Between 1971 and 1975, when Walker would have been between age 4 and 8, an average of 125 police officers were feloniously killed per year. Between 2006 and 2010, the average was 50. In 2013, just 27 officers were feloniously killed. In 2014, it was 51. So far this year, the number of cops killed with firearms is down 16 percent from last year. Two of those officers were killed by other cops.
- If you look at the rate at which cops are killed, the numbers are even more dramatic. There are quite a bit more police officers today than there were in the 1970s. So in 1975, for example, when Walker was 8, there were about 411,000 cops on the street, and 129 police officers were feloniously killed. That’s a rate of 31.38 murders per 100,000 officers. In 2013, the rate was about 5. Last year it was higher at 9.4, but that still means the rate was about 3.5 times higher than when Walker was growing up.*
- To put those rates into perspective, consider the death rate for fishermen, the most dangerous job in America: 131 deaths per 100,000. Even if you factor in traffic fatalities and other accidents, policing isn’t among the 10 most dangerous jobs in America. Another way to look at these figures: The murder rate for police officers is about the same of the overall murder rate in cities such as Bakersfield, Calif.; Louisville; and Omaha.
The rate of assaults on police officers has been falling, too. So you can’t argue that cops are safer solely because they’re killing more criminals, or because they have better equipment (though there’s evidence that the latter has helped). People are just less likely to attack police today than they’ve been in the past. And that’s despite the increased public scrutiny. U.S. News & World Report just looked at how many of the 26 police officers feloniously killed this year were targeted specifically because they were cops. That figure is four — six if you look at the previous 12 months, which would include the ambush of two New York City officers last December. That’s six too many, but six deaths (four total incidents) out of 550,000 to 1.1 million cops in America (see the note below for an explanation of why this figure is a range), in a country of 320 million people, is a very small number. It’s certainly too small to claim a pattern or trend.
So far this year, The Washington Post has counted 666 people shot dead by U.S. police. The Guardian counts 786 people killed by police by any means. In August alone, the Guardian found that U.S. police killed 104 people, a figure four times higher than the number of cops who have been shot all year. Of course, many or most of those killed by police this year may have been justified killings. But of the 104 killed in August, 13 were unarmed. Because this is the first year that organizations have launched projects to collect these figures, we can’t say if the numbers are going up or down. But according to the FBI’s (admittedly flawed, almost certainly low) data, last year was the worst for killings by cops in 20 years.
Of course, the cold-blooded murder of Deputy Goforth is a terrible tragedy. And Walker is certainly correct that there is more scrutiny of policing today, particularly over the past year or two, than there has been in the past. The Obama administration has also been more aggressive about investigating police departments that have shown a pattern of abuse than the George W. Bush administration was. But Walker is simply wrong when he tries to use Goforth’s death to say that more oversight and scrutiny of cops have made the job more dangerous. There’s just no evidence of that. All the available evidence suggests precisely the opposite.
Moreover, you’d think that someone who professes to believe in limited government would welcome more oversight of a government institution. (And to be fair, Walker should get credit for signing a bill that requires police shootings to be investigated by an independent authority.) Yet for some reason, Republicans and conservatives from Donald Trump to Ted Cruz to Walker to Mike Huckabee think the government entity that has the power to detain, arrest and kill should get the least scrutiny of all. They’re, of course, free to argue that position. But they don’t get to make false claims to support it.
(*Note that rates can vary depending on your definition of “police officer” and other variables. See a good discussion of that here. But for these figures, Wang consistently used data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, which put the current total number of law enforcement personnel at about 540,000. Estimates from other agencies put the total as high as 1.1 million. But that would make the rate of killings even lower. For our purposes, the point is that the raw number of cops murdered on the job is in a general decline, even as the number of cops on the street has gone up.)