Over the last few weeks, we have been subject to a constant stream of stories about the War on Cops. According to these stories, a combination of anti-cop rhetoric, rising violence, disrespect for law enforcement and cultural decay is resulting in cops being gunned down all over the country.
There’s a problem with this narrative, however: it’s not true:
So far, 2015 is on pace to see 35 felonious killings of police officers. If that pace holds, this year would end with the second lowest number of murdered cops in decades. Here’s a graph depicting annual killings of cops with firearms from Mark A. Perry at the American Enterprise Institute:
That’s raw numbers. It doesn’t account for the huge increase in the number of cops out there. If you look at the rate of killings, 2015 will be one of the safest year for cops … ever. The only year that was safer was … 2013. Thanks to this plunge in anti-police violence, law enforcement is no longer one of the most dangerous jobs in America (although police still have a very high rate of suicide).
With the murder of police officers having dropped to thankfully low levels, however, even small changes can appear proportionately large. If ten more cops are killed in one year than the last, the media talks about how cop killings are up 25%. But then they fall eerily silent when killing drop 25% the next year. In fact, as Jesse Walker points out, the media have dragged out the War on Cops every time the numbers have spiked up:
For years now, any cluster of violent attacks on police officers—or even a single attack, if it seems particularly cold-blooded or gruesome—is prone to prompt people to warn that a war on cops is underway. Then the cluster passes and the fear subsides until the next spike begins, at which point, like a hive of amnesiacs, the media start trumpeting a war on cops once more. Yet if you peer past the inevitable year-to-year zig-zags in the numbers and look at the long-term trends, police in the U.S. have been less and less likely to be either killed or assaulted on the job.
So why does this matter? The murder of police officers is awful. Why should we care about whether or not there is a War on Cops? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on reducing the numbers of officers killed, regardless of whether the war exists or not?
Well, there are two reasons this is important. First of all, moral panics bring with them changes in laws and prosecutions. The panic over non-existent satanic cults put innocent people in prison for decades. The moral panic over terrorism, an all too real danger, has given our government the power to track our phones, hack our computers and assassinate us without trial. The current moral panic over sex-trafficking is empowering the government to jail consenting adults and shutdown websites that protect sex workers from violence. And the moral panic over all this stuff is what drives civil liberties violations like warrantless wiretaps and asset forfeiture.
Second, we’ve been here before.
In 1963, JFK was assassinated. Before JFK’s body was cold and continuing into the present day, various pundits have tried to blame his murder on “right wing rhetoric” (which apparently motivated his killing by … a devout Communist).
In 1995, a terrorist blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, murdering 168 people. Before the smoke had cleared, Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich were being blamed for their “extreme anti-government rhetoric”.
In 2009, census worker Bill Sparkman committed suicide and tried to stage it as a murder. Before the investigation even began, his death was being blamed on extreme anti-government rhetoric.
In 2011, a nut tried to murder Gabby Giffords and did murder six people, including nine-year-old Christina Green. Before the bodies were cold, it was being blamed on right wing rhetoric. Attention particularly focused on an electoral map produced by Sarah Palin’s PAC, which had a crosshair on Giffords’ district. In the end, it had nothing to do with the murders.
Did the Left really think that these tragedies had anything to do with rhetoric? Some, probably, but even lefties aren’t that stupid. The real reason they tried to blame these horrors on “rhetoric” was because they wanted to shut someone up. In all these cases, we were in the middle of intense debates about the size and scope of government, debates the Left was losing. Blaming horrifying tragedies on right-wing anti-government rhetoric was a way to delegitimize the opposition; to make it seem like being in favor of welfare reform meant you were also in favor of blowing up government buildings.
One of the threads of the supposed “War on Cops” has been blaming said war on “anti-cop rhetoric”. Since Ferguson, the country has been engaged in a growing and long-overdue debate about policing. We have 80,000 SWAT raids in the country every year. We’ve sent billions in military gear to every law enforcement division in the country, even to towns of a few thousand residents. We are on pace for over a thousand citizens to be killed by police this year. And people are starting to ask questions about whether all of this carnage is necessary.
The attempt to blame these killing on anti-cop rhetoric is an attempt to silence this debate1. It is, in particular, an effort to silence Black Lives Matter, which has been called a hate group by some and … stop me if you’re heard this before … been blamed for the murder of cops in the immediate aftermath before anything is known (only for it to later be revealed that the killing had nothing to do with BLM).
There have been some anti-cop elements at BLM rallies, no question. But using such assholes to tar the entire movement would be like … oh, I don’t know … taking a picture of some asshole with a racist sign at a Tea Party rally and claiming that represents the entire movement. The thing about BLM, however, is that unlike other Left Wing movements, they’ve put forward actual policy proposals. And as I’ve pointed out, these proposals are quite reasonable. You might disagree with some of them, but you’d be hard-pressed to label them as “anti-cop”.
But the police unions have gotten too used to being pandered to by politicians. The police unions have gotten so used to being immune from criticism, in fact, that their leader has no qualms about suggesting that people who videotape cops should be charged with felonies. In that environment, any criticism sounds like brutal anti-cop rhetoric.
I can’t blame cops for feeling that way. Your average cop doesn’t care about statistics or politics; he just doesn’t want to be killed on the job. But I do blame the politicians — including most of the Republican and Democratic presidential fields — for pandering to this. They’re supposed to look at this more objectively.
When the Left blamed Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich for the Murrah Building being destroyed, I thought it was disgusting. It wasn’t just disgusting because they were trying to milk a tragedy to political advantage; it was disgusting because they were trying to delegitimize a point of view they disagreed with. I take the same attitude toward these feeble attempts to black Barack Obama, Black Lives Matter and anyone other than the shooters for recent cop killings. It’s disgusting not only because it milks a tragedy for politics but because it is a very blatant attempt to delegitimize an important and ongoing discussion about police tactics, police brutality and accountability.
This isn’t a partisan issue, incidentally, even though I’ve “defended” Obama on this. When it comes to police excesses, the Democrats are part of the problem, not part of the solution. It’s the Democrats who have massively expanded the power and scope of government, dramatically increasing the number of times citizens interact with law enforcement. It’s the Democrats who have sent cops out to round up loose cigarettes and make sure guitar makers aren’t using the wrong type of wood. Joe Biden, current Vice President and second in the polls for 2016, has been a huge supporter of the 1033 program and has repeatedly assured police that “Obama has your back”. The Democrats may make sympathetic noises toward Black Lives Matter. But when push comes to shove, they will put their money where it always is: on powerful and expanding government.
There is no War on Cops. During Prohibition, we had a war on cops. Gangsters were gunning down 150-200 cops a year. During the 1970’s, we had a war on cops, when thugs and extremists were killing 100-150 cops a year. But right now, policing is safer than it’s ever been.
That’s a good thing. That’s a very good thing. No level of cop killing is acceptable. But we should be relieved about the immense progress we’ve made, not finding ways to leverage it into yet more power and less accountability.
1. Well, partly. The other part is an effort to tie Obama to the killings with myths about how he doesn’t talk about cop murders, doesn’t call the widows of slain cops, doesn’t send representatives to cop funerals and engages in anti-cop rhetoric. All of these are untrue. Most can be disproven with simple Google search (example). Over the last few months, I’ve been asking people to give me specific anti-cop rhetoric Obama has “spewed”. The most I’ve gotten is that he expressed sympathy for Trayvon Martin’s family (who was, um, not killed by a cop). And he criticized the police in the Henry Louis Gates incident. And, uh, he’s met with Al Sharpton a bunch of times. The latter seems to a big deal to some but the idea that someone murdered a cop because Obama met with Al Sharpton seems as absurd to me as the idea that someone shot Gabby Giffords because Sarah Palin made a map. If you look at what Obama has actually said … with his own mouth … it has been overwhelmingly pro-police.↩