How Dangerous Is Police Work?
In 2015, a police officer was 18.5 times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male was to be killed by a police officer.
Like a lot of people I have become more familiar with police-violence statistics in recent weeks than I ever really wanted to be, so I knew it was extremely unlikely that 18.5 times more police officers were killed by Black men than unarmed Black men were killed by police. In recent years about 50 U.S. law enforcement officers have been “feloniously killed” annually, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, while police and sheriff’s deputies have killed about 1,000 people a year, according to various sources.
There are, however, far fewer police officers in the U.S. than there are Black men. If what Mac Donald meant was that a police officer’s odds of being shot by a Black man were higher than a random unarmed Black man’s odds of being shot by police (she really could have been clearer about that), maybe the numbers would back her up.
So I ran them for 2015: According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 18 law enforcement officers were killed by Black men that year. According to the Washington Post’s database of police killings, which a BJS survey found to be pretty accurate, 36 unarmed Black men were killed by the police. There were 635,781 police officers and sheriff’s deputies in the U.S. in 2015, according to the FBI, and 20.4 million Black men, according to the Census Bureau. I’m not quite sure how Mac Donald ascertained how many of the nation’s Black men were unarmed, but I just assumed they all were.
In both cases the odds of being killed were quite small: 2.8 deaths per 100,000 in the case of police and 0.18 for unarmed Black men. Divide the former by the latter and you get a ratio of 16, close enough to Mac Donald’s 18.5 that her calculation seems legit.
Is it also informative? According to the same data sources, the odds of a police officer being shot by a white man in 2015 were 112 times higher than the odds of an unarmed white man being shot by police, for whatever it’s worth. And it seems more relevant to current debates that twice as many unarmed Black men were killed by police in 2015 as police were killed by Black men. It also seems relevant that, as of 2018, the ratio had fallen to almost 1:1 amid what appears to have been broad decline in police shootings of unarmed people of all races — a sign that the Black Lives Matter protest movement that began after the (non-police) killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in 2013 and took off after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 may in fact have been achieving some of its aims even before this spring’s events.
What Mac Donald’s calculation does hint at, though, is that on the whole it’s much more dangerous to be a police officer than not to be a police officer. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ occupational fatality statistics back this up: police and sheriff’s patrol officers suffered 13.7 job-related fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers in 2018, compared with 3.5 for the U.S. workforce as a whole and 0.7 for those of us in professional and related occupations. Still, the BLS data also show police work to be far from the most dangerous work out there.
A big part of the self-image of many police officers — and of their partisans such as Mac Donald, author of a 2016 book called “The War on Cops” — seems to be that they are embattled warriors doing terribly dangerous work on behalf of an unappreciative public. That last bit may be true in some parts of some cities, especially lately, but over the years the police have been among the most appreciated of American institutions, coming behind only the military in Gallup’s polling and enjoying far more public approval than journalists, politicians, bankers or businesspeople.
As for the danger, yes, police work is a lot more dangerous than what I do. But it’s a lot less dangerous than working as a roofer or a truck driver or a farmer or a garbage collector. And while truckers would really appreciate it if the rest of us gave them a wider berth on the highway, they and roofers and garbage collectors and others in dangerous occupations seldom if ever give off the air of aggrieved menace that many police officers, and especially their union leaders, currently do. That’s partly because nobody’s marching around carrying signs saying “Abolish the Sanitation Department,” of course, but I do think a major issue with today’s police is that so many officers perceive the risks they face as akin to, say, parachuting into hostile territory in Afghanistan or Iraq when in reality they are much closer to those involved in pruning shrubbery or building houses.
Finally, it does seem worth noting that all of us are at far more risk of being killed by other civilians than by police officers, and that this is especially true for Black men. Police shot and killed 991 people in the U.S. in 2018, according to the Post database, of whom 219, or 22%, were Black men. There were 14,123 total homicides that year, according to the FBI, and 6,237 of the victims, or 44%, were Black men. Reducing homicide rates is a great way to save Black lives and other lives, and the preponderance of evidence seems to indicate that having more police around reduces the incidence of homicides and other crimes. But the preponderance of evidence also indicates that less-confrontational police approaches are more effective than arresting and shooting people.
Fun fact: in most occupations, the BLS's 2006 switch from calculating fatalities per 100,000 workers to fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers resulted in higher occupational fatality rates. But police work lots of overtime, so in their case it lowered the fatality rate.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.