Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Another Debate on Officer Safety

Question: how safe is it to be an American law enforcement officer? Below are edited portions of a debate that took place recently on Facebook.

Erica: [on her Facebook wall] In honor of the four murdered Lakewood Police Officers in Washington, tag yourself in my profile pic and make it your own profile pic. The blue line represents all law enforcement who daily protect this nation. The black background was designed as a constant reminder of our fallen officers. Please change this to your profile pic until after their funerals which will be held on Tuesday.

Matt: Erica, we all feel terrible about the ambushing of the Washington police officers. It's important to note, however, that being a law enforcement officer is one of the safest [least deadly?] jobs in the country. In 2008, according to the FBI, only 41 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty in the entire country. When it comes to being killed on the job, police officers generally have one of the safest jobs in America. [Note: I should have said that officer deaths are extremely rare, not that police have "one of the safest jobs in America"--that would have been a more accurate statement.]

Marie: I respectfully disagree with your opinion. Just because more law enforcement officers are not killed on the job does not make it generally safer. There was the SJPD officer earlier this year who got into a wrestling match with a parolee who did not want to go back to prison. He ended up taking the officer's gun and shooting at the officer. The officer was able to escape, the parolee hid out in a gas station until the MERGE unit got there. The parolee took the easy way out and saved the taxpayers some money. And let's not forget the daily scuffles that occur with people who either don't want to go back to jail or prison, hate cops in general, or are high on drugs or drunk. The poor Lakewood officers were just sitting there report writing and enjoying some coffee...then there's the four Oakland police officers who stopped a parolee who was wanted for attempted rape, and looked what happened to them. I fear the day the police chaplain shows up at my door. I think that many in the law enforcement community, or those people who have loved ones in law enforcement would balk at your opinion that it is generally one of the safest jobs.

I'm sure the family of Jeff Fontana would also disagree with you.

Michael: Stating that Police have one of the safest jobs in America is one of the most ignorant and unsubstantiated statements I have heard in a long time. Given the current string of violence against officers, it is also incredibly insensitive.

Me: Marie, for every instance you cite, other ppl can cite a Phuong Ho or a Johannes Mehersle. [Note: for the record, there may be circumstances in both of these cases that indicate either an accident or the justified use of force. I'm not making any judgments until all the evidence is made public.] We tend to think of officers' jobs as dangerous because whenever an officer is killed, it becomes front page news. In reality, the FBI stats show that officers have a higher chance of being killed in auto accidents than by any perp. I do, however, agree with you in one respect: anyone with a job requiring random interaction with the general public--taxi drivers, gas station attendants, 7-Eleven owners, officers, etc.--has to deal with potentially dangerous people. Officers, b/c of their training and ability to use weapons (tasers, guns), usually end up alive and well.

Mike, I specifically cited the FBI stats, so I'm not sure where you get the "unsubstantiated" part. Here is a direct link to those stats, in case you're interested in actual numbers instead of speculation:

I'm also not sure how I'm being insensitive or ignorant when I'm basing my statement on objective evidence. The families of officers ought to feel much better knowing the truth--that the chances of an officer being killed or injured while working is thankfully small. If you want to believe in a myth based on what the media chooses to aggrandize, that's your choice. Personally, I don't see any benefit in making the families of officers feel more scared than justifiably necessary.

Denise: It's good to know that you can read. Unless you have worked as an officer then you have no idea that the true dangers we face on a daily basis. Typical lawyer...

Me: Denise, I've presented objective, reliable evidence supporting my position. You've responded with name-calling and ad hominem attacks. Perhaps you see some benefit in unjustified fear-mongering, but I don't...

There have been many countries with strong police forces--1940's Germany, the USSR, Iran, etc.--but few countries where the majority of citizens have been intelligent enough to value lawyers as well as police officers.

May God bless the families of all Americans--especially Americans who have died while serving their country. [Note: I was trying to show appreciation for all Americans who risk their lives serving the public, not just police officers, but in retrospect this entire comment sounds preachy.]

Marie: Both cases you site have been tried in the media, not yet in the courts. But you bring up another interesting point. Criminals are innocent until proven guilty, yet law enforcement is always guilty until proven innocent, and even then, their professional life is basically over because of the trial by media.

Your stat about felonious slayings of officers, does not address the massive amounts of other causes of fatalities: electrocution, car crashes, poisonings, hazmat...There are very few occupations where so many hazards exist, ON A DAILY BASIS. [Therefore,] "One of the safest jobs" is a flawed statement!

I have had to go to the emergency room to see my husband because of on the job incidental exposure to PCP, I've had my husband call me in the morning and say "It's not me" when a young officer was killed in cold blood after a "routine" traffic stop. You can cite all the numbers you want, but until you a walk a mile in their shoes, please feel free to sleep safe at night knowing that there are people out there who would take bullets, get maimed, and leave families behind, working for strangers just like you to keep them safe. [Note: I never said there were no risks to being a police officer, just that we should examine the likelihood of the risk of injuries or deaths

Me: I want to give Marie some more info. The FBI also publishes the number of officers killed due to accidents (i.e., no malicious intent): in 2008, only 68 law enforcement officers were killed in accidents while performing their duties in the entire country. The majority of those officers (39/68) were killed as a result of automobile accidents.

You keep citing instances that are obviously emotional to you, but the FBI has already included those deaths and accidental deaths in their statistics. If the FBI stats leave out relevant info, please let me know. To prevail in a discussion, you have to attack the other person's data, not bring up anecdotal evidence that is already included in the data cited by the other side. Maybe we need better reporting of officer injuries. In other words, maybe the stats don't include PCP exposure and other harmful injuries. Under-reporting of injuries/deaths is one way of criticizing my position, but no one has actually attacked the FBI's data. Perhaps none of us thinks the FBI's data is unreliable.

Marie, I think what you are saying is that officers have to put up with things most people don't. In other words, a secretary at a law firm doesn't usually deal with incidental exposure to PCP. I get that. But determining whether a job is safe depends on how many people are actually injured or die, not by potentially dangerous incidents. For example, doctors and nurses deal with contagious and deadly diseases every single day. However, if the stats show that only 200 nurses out of 800,000 nationwide die and 15,000 are injured from contact with patients (only a 0.025% chance of death and less than a 2% chance of injury), wouldn't you agree their job is one of the safest ones in the country? [Note: I make the same mistake again--using the phrase, "one of the safest," without comparing the "danger" rates to another profession's.]

Denise: Sorry I couldn't respond quicker, I spent the evening out in the rain/snow protecting and serving the citizens of the city I work for...

Matt- I looked at the data from the FBI and based on the injuries portion, it states that 11.3 officers per 100 will be assaulted in some way. That means I work for a 90 person department. My chances of getting assaulted this year will be approximately 1 in 10. A 10% chance of being assaulted--that doesn't seem very safe to me. It should also be noted that approximately 75% of the nation's departments gave the FBI data for this study. I think your timing stinks about how safe my job is, considering it's in the wake of remembering my fallen brothers, but thanks for re-assuring me and my family. I am sure they will sleep better because of the FBI statistics say my job is safe. [Note: Denise makes a relevant point. Denise has attacked the completeness of the data I've cited, which is a legitimate way to criticize the other side's position.]

Jen: I'm sorry but the FBI doesn't know their head from their *ss. They are nothing but glorified accountants. I have the highest respect for my brothers and sisters that risk their lives every day so that we rest a little easier. How dare you disrespect the job or an officer but spouting off some statistic you got off the FBI website. As a current Criminal Justice student and future law enforcement officer, I read daily how officers are killed in the line of duty, commit suicide, or have alcohol/drug addictions just to deal with the evil things they have seen that we can't even imagine. Four officers lost their lives, while drinking coffee, because our justice system failed us. Maybe you should look up those statistics.

A total of 1,640 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty during the past 10 years, an average of one death every 53 hours or 164 per year. There were 133 law enforcement officers killed in 2008, the lowest annual total since 1960. Click on the link for more accurate statistics.

Me: [Here, I let my inner snark out, but only a little bit.]

Marie, as admirable as your husband is, he doesn't create his own salary. He requires "desk jockeys" like me to produce something and generate taxes, which support you and your husband. It's interesting that you and Denise are so contemptuous towards someone who essentially helps pay your bills.

Jen, assuming 800,000 law enforcement officers nationwide, the stats show less than a 2% chance of actual injury from assault. Your own link cites numbers similar to the FBI's (133 officers killed in 2008 vs. 109 killed; and about 15,000 officers injured in 2008 from assaults). It's obvious all of you are emotionally invested in this issue, and it is clouding your judgment. That's fine. You have a right to be unreasonable, and you have a right to believe in something that isn't supported by the actual evidence. (Although I have a feeling you guys would have burned Galileo at the stake if you had the chance.) It's a shame good officers have so many supporters who use emotional pleas instead of reason, but I guess that's sort of like blaming Republicans because Glenn Beck is popular, i.e. you shouldn't judge anything by the unfounded passion of some of its supporters.

Dave: I'm not standing up for anyone here [referring to me], and I think that cops ARE under-appreciated, and I feel sorry for any cop injured or killed in the line of duty, but isn't being a police officer a "choice"? Denise- I know you had several jobs before being a cop but didn't you choose to be one? I'm pretty sure you and every cop out there knew what they were getting into and knew the risks before they became an officer. Officers sign a contract stating that they could be placed in harm's way DAILY. Maybe I'm mistaken but isn't that part of the job? Isn't that why police officers make $25-45 an hour? Officers continually make over 100k a year with overtime. I'd love a job where children love me, women flock over guys in "blue" and I get free coffee all the time, but instead I deal with the same cracked out nut cases the cops deal with but without the gun, badge and taser or my God-given right to protect myself like the police do, but that's my choice. I used to like the fact that the sides of the cop cars said "to protect and serve" now they don't say anything at all, go figure...

when you have the nerve to post some statistic that offends my friends that put their lives on the line to protect unappreciative people like you, yeah I get emotional. We can go back and forth all day on statistics but the truth is they are just numbers. Anyone that know about statistics knows they are not always accurate and there is always room for error. I'm sorry but an officer being killed in the line of duty every 53 hours is one officer too many. Why don't you stick to your pencil pushing duties and leave the real world stuff to us big people.

Me: [I couldn't resist publishing my inner dialogue when Jen continued to make illogical comments.]

Jen, you crack me up. You ignore statistics like they're some kind of dangerous flu (OMG, "numbers"), and then you cite statistics you like better :-) Pointing out the truth doesn't mean anyone is unappreciative. I happen to know a few police officers, and I appreciate any American who has a tough job and works hard. Saying a job isn't dangerous doesn't mean it isn't tough. (A job can be safe but still hard to do.) You guys just don't have the basic logic skills to make the distinction, so you resort to name-calling because you (unfairly) think I'm being unappreciative. Like I said, that's fine. It's a darn shame, though, that we don't teach logic in high school. An educated 14 year-old kid from ancient Greece would kick our butts on a symbolic logic test, and that should concern all of us. Without logic, all we have left is name-calling, speculation, and emotional pleas. That's not how great civilizations thrive or survive, especially in a democratic republic, which requires an informed, educated population.

Chantelle: I don’t know you, Matt, but I think you are an idiot. (Yes, I am a name caller, sue me). I don’t think you are an idiot because I don’t agree with your witty rhetoric or the data you’ve laid out for us. You’re an idiot because you took something that was close to someone’s heart and stomped on it. While it is clear you’ve offended many people, it isn’t really about the intellectual sewage you’ve spewed out. It’s the fact that you went there in the first place.

Police officers choose to be police officers. Lawyers choose to be lawyers, and electricians choose to take jobs as electricians. Do police officers know the risks when they make this choice? Of course they do, but it takes courage, dedication, and heart to make that choice. Somebody has to make the decision to be a sheepdog and keep the sheep, like me and you, safe from the wolves. Evil people exist in the world. We all take steps to protect ourselves from the dangers of the world and try to create a harmonious society based on rules, regulations, and laws. We need lawyers to write these laws and we need police to enforce them and keep order. Police officers get to deal with the people who decide not to respect these laws. What part of this isn’t dangerous? What part of the required uniform that includes bullet proof vests and carrying a gun isn’t dangerous? We can discuss statistics all day long, but it is all relative. What other jobs are we comparing this to? US Marines in war torn Baghdad, fishermen in Alaska, checkers at Safeway? I can name a handful of occupations that make police officers job look safe : Loggers, roofers, pilots. The reality is that being a police officer is inherently more dangerous than most jobs out there. While the statistics on how many officers were killed feloniously, died in accidents, or got punched in the face are true, the fact that there are statistics at all makes this job not safe. [Note: I think my brain froze when I read the last sentence.] One death, 10 deaths, 41 deaths, in 2007, 2008, 2055…it really doesn’t matter. Statistics alone are not a true measure of job safety. Statistics mean nothing when someone you love becomes one.

My intention is not to resort to “name calling”, but Matt, seriously….the fact you even responded the way you did to the first post and that you keep stroking yourself about it, makes you an idiot.

Me: Chantelle, I don't think I can change your mind, but I have to try.
I responded to the original comment about the officers' deaths in a way that was really simple: "We all feel terrible about the ambushing of the Washington police officers," but let's not get carried away, thinking this kind of thing is common, b/c it's not. Let's make sure the families of officers understand that all evidence indicates that officers have an extremely high chance of returning home each night, physically safe and sound.

I have no idea how the above comments make me insensitive. In fact, if I wanted to talk like you, I would say, "You are an idiot. What moron likes scaring the crap out of officers and their families by exaggerating the dangers of their job? How insensitive!" As you can see, b/c my comment is subjective, I am just as right as you are when I call you "insensitive." That's why reasonable people don't rely on subjective evidence or name-calling to make a point--it's impossible to show who is right or wrong if people make comments that lack objective evidence.

I felt safe assuming that none of us knows the officers who were murdered, so it's not as if we're talking about friends or family members. Erica posted something to show her sympathy with people who were murdered. I posted something to remind people that such deaths are thankfully rare. We all deal with death differently.

What separates us from the animals is logic and our ability to reason. An animal can feel just like we can. An animal can claim insensitivity. An animal cannot, however, defend its positions or its actions using logic and evidence. It is precisely our ability to use logic that makes us uniquely human. When you disregard relevant, reliable statistics--i.e., objective evidence--in favor of unsupported, solipsistic rhetoric--i.e., subjective opinions--you eliminate what makes you uniquely human.

When you demand that others disregard evidence in favor your own unsupported, personal opinions, you are being supremely selfish. In effect, you are saying that "I, Chantelle, know more than you do about this, and b/c I believe I know more about this topic, I am right." What you fail to realize is that if we all think like you, we no longer have a reliable way of determining whether you actually speak the truth. Separated from logic, the truth becomes just what the majority of people think it is, which may be wrong. Socrates, St. Thomas More, Martin Luther King, etc.--these men suffered b/c of people like you--who believed, in their heart of hearts--that they were right b/c their friends thought the same way they did, and anyone who disagreed with them must be wrong (or, using your language, an "idiot").

150 years ago, educated Americans believed Africans were inferior. They enslaved Africans by force of law and continued to restrict their children through Jim Crow laws. Those same slave-owners disregarded evidence and logic in favor of your brand of "thinking"--that something is right not b/c it is grounded in objective evidence, but b/c the majority of people feel it is true, and therefore it must be true. I am certain American slaveowners also cited their own personal experiences as evidence. I am also sure the police officers who lynched African-Americans did so out of a desire to protect their women and citizens, just like the police who beat Phuong Ho did so b/c they believed they were protecting the public. (By the way, it astounds me that intelligent men like Thomas Jefferson were able to be logical and yet own and mistreat slaves. Jefferson shows that logic may not be enough to ward off evil, b/c a majority of people will always find ways to deem themselves superior to the minority. As a result, we must always be on guard against despotism, and the surest path to despotism is refusing to modify one's belief when objective evidence shows a flaw.)

The Taliban and other despotic groups think just like you. They believe that they risk their lives every single day to protect their people. They, too, are indignant that their citizens fail to understand the real threats against them. Like you, they also believe anyone disagrees with them is an idiot. If you ever think your personal beliefs are sufficient to gauge the truth, just remember the Taliban--they would love a society where personal beliefs continue to stand even when contrary evidence shows such beliefs are false. They would love such a society b/c they cannot be proven wrong with statistics or data. Without evidence and without data, the Taliban's opinion is just as good as yours.

This seems a good time to point out that the reason intelligent people do not inject name-calling into a discussion is b/c it destroys the point of discussion, i.e., to take someone's statement and to determine whether it is true. When I say someone's statement is wrong b/c reliable evidence clearly shows otherwise, it is not the same thing as name-calling. I am citing evidence that is either reliable or unreliable. When Denise talks about the lack of safety in her job, she fails to mention she works in Santa Cruz, CA--one of the safest cities in the entire world [Note: Santa Cruz had zero reported homicides in the past few years]. Obviously, the risks to her are lower than someone in a less affluent, high-violent-crime area--and the number of officer deaths in Santa Cruz over the last ten years supports my point. Even so, she believes--against the evidence--that she works a dangerous job b/c she feels that way. Like you, she has indicated that her own personal beliefs reign supreme over contrary data and logic. Like the Taliban, it is impossible to argue with her, b/c subjective beliefs cannot be proven wrong or right.

When you criticize me without offering a single shred of objective evidence, you do not attack me--you debase yourself. Millions of people have sacrificed their lives to get us here: a nation where people should never confuse unfounded personal opinions with the truth; where reasonable people realize they must use objective evidence to support their opinions; and where reasonable people do their best to avoid the morass of "groupthink."

Denise: Fact: I am a sworn officer for the city of Santa Cruz. Non-fact--that I "feel "unsafe doing so. The reality is I feel safe performing my duties; however, this does not make the job I do any safer. The reason I that I am safe is because if the training, experience, protective vest, and tools I carry including a gun. The fact that I wear a bullet proof vest and carry a gun to work would lead someone to believe that my job is dangerous than most.

You stated that "When Denise talks about the lack of safety in her job, she fails to mention she works in Santa Cruz--one of the safest cities in the entire world. Obviously, the risks to her are lower than someone in a less affluent, high-violent-crime area."

Fact: According to data provided from my department to the CA Department of Justice and then to the FBI, Santa Cruz is consistently above the national average for crime rates. While I do not work for the most violent city, I do not work for Mayberry or as you state "one of the safest cities in the entire world."

Here are two links to support my above statement:

You are correct that the odds of me being killed feloniously in the line of duty are very slim. But I do not know of another profession where more people have been killed "Feloniously" than law enforcement. The very fact that we have statistics for this would lead someone to believe that being a police officer is rather dangerous.

There are other factors that make a job dangerous than just the number of felonious deaths. I provided data from the FBI study in my second post about the number of officers than had been injured, roughly 10%. I do not claim that my job is the most dangerous, but I can cite actual events that have occurred at my department, that help support why this job is dangerous. While I have come home with only minor scrapes and bruises over the course of my career, other officers have not been as fortunate. About a month ago one of our officers was apprehending a fleeing suspect. During that foot pursuit, he was injured and was out of work for 3 weeks. He is currently on light duty. In April this year my department had it's first officer involved shooting in years, a SCPD detective located a stolen vehicle with two people inside of it. They decided to flee and hit the officer with the car. The officer suffered minor injuries. They were later apprehended and uninjured. Currently there are several more officers than are going to be out of work due to injuries suffered while working. I can cite several other examples if need be but I think you get my point.

[I sent her an email thanking her for the information and her commitment to public service.]

[Michael, in a message calling me "arrogant and agitating," said that I had to compare police fatality/injury stats with other occupations to prove that police services is "one of the safest jobs." He's right, even though he wrongly cited OSHA as the agency with the relevant stats (OSHA appears to list general categories of injuries, not injuries by occupation). The BLS publishes the relevant stats, and I'm just beginning to work my way through them.]

Update: I finally had a chance to research the BLS stats. My findings are HERE.

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