According to the FBI, 2015 was one of the safest years on record to be a police officer in America. Agency data shows 41 officers were killed in the line of duty last year, a drop of 20 percent from one year prior. Only in 2013, when felonious police fatalities hit an historic all-time low, were fewer officers killed while doing their jobs. The year 2015 tied with 2008 for the second lowest death rate for police on record.
That fact is interesting on its face, but it’s particularly noteworthy considering the number of sources who claim a “war on cops” is being waged that imperils the lives and safety of officers around the country. This manufactured battle is supposedly linked with the “Ferguson effect,” the theory—popular in conservative circles and other places where white people thrive on having their racist fears stoked—that Black Lives Matter and other anti-police-brutality protesters have created a “surge in lawlessness” through “intense agitation against American police departments.” The narrative has been publicized and popularized widely enough that a 2015 Rasmussen poll found that 58 percent of Americans believe the police currently face higher levels of danger than they have in the past. It’s also given rise to the Blue Lives Matter movement and a Louisiana bill of the same name, the first law in the country to make attacking a police officer a hate crime.
In other words, this has all the markings of a classic social panic, including the lack of actual data or factual truth to back it up.
“Any felonious death of a police officer is a tragedy, but the data show that the police officers’ job is not becoming more deadly,” David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor who studies law enforcement, told Huffington Post writer Matt Ferner. “The FBI statistics on police officer felonious deaths show that belief that the job is growing more dangerous, because of protests against police or because of the demand for reform to police practices, is simply wrong. Belief to the contrary may be sincere, but it has no basis in fact.”
Despite the fact that statistics from his own agency effectively dispel the myth of the war on cops, FBI head James Comey has been a consistent proponent of the idea, emphasizing “viral videos” as a demotivating factor for cops to engage in police work. In a speech he made last year, Comey said that “in today’s YouTube world” cops feel “under siege” and suggested they’re “answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns.” Earlier this month, the FBI head reiterated this idea, chalking up a recent rise in crime rates in 40 cities to cops shying away from doing their jobs lest they end up on camera.
“There’s a perception that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime,” Comey stated, according to the New York Times, “the getting out of your car at 2 in the morning and saying to a group of guys, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’”
That idea was met with resistance by James O. Pasco Jr., the executive director of National Fraternal Order of Police. Speaking with the Times, the organization head seemed less than happy with Comey’s insinuation that police around the country are simply standing by as crime happens.
“He ought to stick to what he knows,” Pasco told the Times. “He’s basically saying that police officers are afraid to do their jobs with absolutely no proof.”
There are plenty of other obvious problems with Comey’s repeated assertions. Essentially, he’s suggesting that BLM and movements against police abuse are bigger problems than police violence; pushing the notion that activists deserve scorn for filming and calling out police misconduct when they see it; and none too subtly implying that demanding accountability for police violence somehow merits a response that jeopardizes public safety (while also peddling the opinion that without extreme policing, some communities just naturally tend toward violence). Maybe the most outlandish idea lurking between the lines of Comey’s talking points is that policing without brutality is an impossibility; that police officers simply cannot do their jobs—which are difficult and challenging on the best of days—without crossing the line into abuse.
“Police now for the first time are having to consider the consequences of being brutal, being unethical, and doing things that for the longest time they could do and not be accountable for,” Jacob Crawford, founder of WeCopwatch, told the Intercept. “But that doesn’t make crime happen.”
It also seems worthwhile to point out that it’s hard to affirmatively pinpoint a connection between de-escalations in policing and changes in crime rates. In New York City, more than a year after police significantly lowered the number of stop-and-frisks and engaged in a virtual work stoppage, overall crime rates remain low. While other large cities—Las Vegas, Chicago and Los Angeles—have seen crime rise under similar conditions, experts note that a number of variables, instead of a singular issue, tend to contribute to climbs or drops in crime rates.
“Every city is going to be unique,” Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project told Think Progress. “There are certain trends that can affect crime rates nationally, but we do know that crime is very much subject to local circumstances. It can be demographics, the proportion of young men in a given population, the size and the kind of policing that goes on, the employment rates, types of drug abuse. All those factors can vary quite substantially.”
“The cities with more crime in the last years are cities that are already facing severe challenges,” Ames Grawert, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice told the Intercept. “If we’re going to talk about causes of crime we should be talking about that.”
We should probably also be talking about how putting out the demonstrably false idea of a war on police isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous. We know where unchecked moral panics lead—the evidence is all around us, in overly punitive drug laws, filled-to-capacity prisons and a real war on the poor masquerading as welfare reform. The consequences of irresponsible scaremongering can be enormous. What’s more, the outlets and talking heads who continue to push the baseless and provocative narrative that police are under widescale attack cannot pretend to be surprised at the resulting negative climate.
“If you tell cops over and over that they’re in a war, they’re under siege, they’re under attack, and that citizens are the enemy—instead of the people they’re supposed to protect—you’re going to create an atmosphere of fear, tension, and hostility that can only end badly, as it has for so many people,” Daniel Bier writes at Newsweek. “As I wrote in the Freeman last year, ‘Disproportionate fears about officer safety are leading inexorably to the disproportionate use of force’—as well as leading many people (especially those who have never witnessed police misconduct) to excuse obvious brutality in the name of officer safety. Meanwhile, those who see such behavior every day will have their trust in law enforcement steadily eroded.’”
It’s far easier to gin up fears about Black Lives Matter than it is to address longstanding tensions between the cops and poor communities of color. It plays with a certain audience, both for votes and ratings. What it doesn’t do is genuinely address any of the real issues at the heart of the current debate around policing. But it’s a conversation that has to happen, and it's long overdue.