Most people have probably seen the movies where the wife of a police officer tearfully tells her husband, “Every day I worry about you. I’m so afraid there will come a time when I’ll hear a knock at the door and I’ll answer it to be told you have been shot and killed.” Many people imagine police work is accurately depicted in movies like End of Watch and a long line of similar films. It should be no surprise that most seem to believe cops have tremendously dangerous jobs.
We have often been told that police deserve special respect and support because of the great risk they take. There is a tendency to blame the victims when police are accused of using excessive force because of the dangers we are told they face each day. More importantly, police tell themselves they take extraordinary risk to “serve and protect” and so must be hyper-vigilant to avoid getting killed.
Some cops such as Lt. Dan Marcou bristle against the idea that they should “appear more people friendly,” contending instead, “In today’s world, law enforcement should embrace the word aggressive” because “our police officers are modern day warriors.” But in fact in most circumstances police are not facing exceptional threats. Do police face difficulties? Is their work stressful? Is their task often thankless? No doubt! But the risk level is not nearly as high as many of us have been led to imagine.
Indeed I believe we are making the police more dangerous by failing to challenge the view that cops do their work on a battlefield of violent criminality. The deadly hazards faced by police –with notable exceptions- are considerably less than that which is faced by people in plenty of other lines of work. In the top ten more dangerous professions identified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics police work is not to be found.
I can’t recall a single movie where there is a scene with the wife of a taxi driver, trash collector, or bartender in the throes of anxiety because he might be killed in the line of duty. Never do we hear anyone say, “They risk their lives to do their jobs.” But people in these and other lines of work face a considerably greater degree of danger than the average cop.
Contrary to widespread beliefs, even when police die in the line of duty most of the time it is not at the hands of a violent criminal but due to a traffic accident. On the other hand, taxi drivers who make their living behind the wheel are more likely to be murdered than to die in a traffic accident. Murder rates among police officers are no higher than the murder rate among the general population of major US cities.
When a taxi driver is murdered virtually no one hears about it. When a police officer is violently killed on duty it becomes national news. Because these deaths are so well publicized it is inevitable that most people imagine the job of a cop is much more dangerous than it is in fact. By exaggerating the dangers police face, it makes it more likely they will preemptively use deadly force, a disproportionately large amount of which is inflicted on black men. It also increases the chances that many more people will give police the “benefit of the doubt” when they kill even unarmed people.
A fear-infused low tolerance for risk leads to a greater willingness to shoot first rather than hesitate long enough to determine whether a danger is genuine. A man gets shot to death during a routine traffic stop when he reaches for his wallet. The officer states that he used his gun because he feared for his life. As Sgt. Jablonski of the old Hill Street Blues TV series would say, “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.”
As Joshua Holland wrote in a recent article, “From a cadet’s first day at the police academy to a veteran cop’s daily briefings, it’s hammered into most officers’ heads that their first job is to get home safely every day. While police obviously need to protect themselves, the job requires some risk, and this constantly repeated message leads many officers to see citizens as threats—and to view themselves as ‘warriors’ rather than ‘guardians’ of their communities.”
But it is not the police officer’s “first job to get home safely every day.” His or her first job is to “serve and protect.” Police must be required to risk more so they won’t risk the lives of others so much. Do we really think police should be allowed to take less risk that taxi drivers? Too often police have walked away from killing unarmed people, or people armed but not immediately dangerous, without facing charges simply because they claim to have feared for their life. The perception that police work in general is highly risky business is an important factor in why it is almost impossible to indict a cop when one is involved in a killing.
In response to the critical scrutiny of police violence Black Lives Matter has inspired, police in certain quarters have doubled down on the insistence that their job is so dangerous. Some cops have even injured themselves and blamed the influence of Black Lives Matter rather than welcome reasonable reforms. The “Cops Lives Matter” refrain and the fabricated “War on Cops” presents a false face given that on the job deaths among police have actually declined in recent years while police violence has increased.
Cops continue to so consistently get cleared on charges of excessive use of force – particularly deadly force – because they are not acting contrary to department guidelines. As Radley Balko the author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces has written, “The problem isn’t cops breaking the rules — the rules themselves are the problem.” The rules allow too much discretion on the part of police using deadly force by assuming a greater degree of danger than actually exists. More training will not likely reduce police violence unless rules for using force are changed. And the rules are not likely to change until the myth of the endangered police is crushed.
“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors“ (Ephesians 4:25). We need to insistently challenge the claim that police face great danger. Only then will rules be put in place requiring much greater restrain from police when it comes to using deadly force and only then will more time training in conflict resolution be required than in the use of weapons. These changes must take place for the good of us all.