Fox News uses misleading statistics to push an authoritarian agenda

Police officer deaths tragically rose this year — mostly because of accidents, not violence. Fox omitted that fact


Charlie May
July 6, 2017 10:28PM (UTC)

Fox News ran a headline on Wednesday that seemed to imply that violence against law enforcement was growing throughout the country. "Police Officer Deaths on Duty Have Jumped Nearly 20 Percent in 2017," the headline read. "The figures suggest a grim trend; 2016 was the deadliest year for police in 5 years," Fox News wrote, then quoted the national spokesman of pro-police activist group Blue Lives Matter as suggesting that there was "growing violence against law enforcement."

The problem with this narrative? It's not true.

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While police deaths are incredibly tragic and preventable, the statistics that violent attacks on police have risen in the past few years doesn't square with statistics. Misusing statistics, to suggest that violence against police is rising, furthers Fox News' authoritarian, fearmongering, and subtly racist conservative narrative. Moreover, the number of police officer deaths per capita — a more relevant statistic, as it considers population changes — declined by 70% from 1980 to 2013, according to a BBC report.

In their article, Fox News cites The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), which measured all officer fatalities from January 1, 2016 to July 6, 2016 and compared them to the period between January 1, 2017 and July 7, 2017. True, total fatalities have risen by 10, from 57 in 2016 to 67 this year.

However, Fox omitted that the increase in police deaths is largely a result of non-violent tragic accidents. There was a 17 percent increase in "traffic-related" deaths (four more officers died this year than last), and a 33 percent increase in deaths from "other causes." In the NLEOMF list, "other causes" includes "aircraft crash, drowning, electrocution, fall, fire-related incident, job related illness, and poison."

Yet Blue Lives Matter spokesman Randy Sutton told Fox News unequivocally that this increase was due to violent rampages against police officers.

"People now are more willing to engage the police in combat," Sutton told Fox News. "Part of the war on cops [is] the failure of police leadership to step up to the place and not acquiesce to political considerations when it comes to the safety of police officers."

"The other part of the war on cops is the failure of the media to post anything positive about police. All they do is put up damaging stories and spin much of that into a narrative that is false and perpetuates a distorted narrative," he continued.

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Yet only two more cops were killed by firearms this year than last year, the stats show. The rise — from 22 to 24 — represents a 9 percent increase. With that small of a sample size, the number isn't necessarily statistically significant nor hints at a trend.

University of Southern California law professor and former policeman Seth Stoughton warned of those who try to warp statistics to infer an increase in violence against police. Quoted in the BBC, Stoughton said:

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"There's a widespread perception in the American public, and particularly within law enforcement, that officers are more threatened, more endangered, more often assaulted, and more often killed than they have been historically. . . . I think it's a very strong perception. People truly believe it. But factually, looking at the numbers, it's not accurate."

The Fox report was topical to the tragic murder on Wednesday of New York City police officer Miosotis Familia. But to twist it into a narrative that violence against law enforcement is growing is dangerous, especially given the post–Bush era increase in police militarization, and the growing crackdown against protestors. Last year, private security firms like TigerSwan conducted widespread surveillance and used counterterrorism tactics against Dakota Access Pipeline protesters.

While the 66 officers that were shot and killed in 2016 is a five-year high, the numbers often fluctuate. CNN reported that 2015 was one of the safest years for officers on record. And in 2007, 70 officers were shot and killed. In 2011, 73 were killed, according to the NLEOMF. Using statistics from 2007 up to this point in 2017, roughly 561 officers have been tragically killed as a result of firearms over that 10-year period.

This pales in comparison to deaths at the hands of police: American police are currently on track to kill 1,000 people in 2017, for the third year in a row. And blacks are still 2.5 times more likely than whites to be killed by police. Highlighting police deaths isn't mutually exclusive to highlighting victims of police violence: both are tragedies.

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Charlie May

Charlie May is a news writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @charliejmay

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