Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Is Being a Cop a Safe Job? (More Than You Might Think)

File this under Counter-Intuition 101. In 2008, according to the FBI, only "41 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty" in the entire country. Thankfully, it is rare for a police officer to become seriously injured or to die on the job. For more, see HERE. [Updated links here for 2010: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/leoka/leoka-2010/officers-feloniously-killed and http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/leoka/leoka-2010/officers-feloniously-killed]

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.

Depending on what types of law enforcement officers are included (corrections? sheriffs? BART cops? city? fed?), there are between 430,000 and 800,000 law enforcement officers in the United States [I know I should have a citation for this, but I can't find a reliable source, so I included a range of numbers based on the various stats I viewed]. [Update on 7/20/12: see HERE: "Approximately 800,000 law enforcement officers currently serve across the country."]

109 fatalities (41 + 68) out of 800,000 means police officers have less than a 0.014% chance of dying on the job each year. Of course, this percentage does not include the number of times an officer is assaulted by a perp or random stranger. Even so, law enforcement families should sleep soundly--a 0.014% chance of dying while working means officers have safer jobs than most people commonly think. Of course, that doesn't mean the job isn't tough. Being a street cop is a stressful job, and I wish we'd lower public employees' long-term benefits so we could put the money towards hiring more officers and reducing the number of continuous hours that individual officers spend on duty.

This is no idle debate--the more people who (incorrectly) think officers' jobs are overly dangerous, the more likely the public will allow officers to use excessive force against citizens. Also, if officers overestimate the actual danger they are in, they will use less patient methods of interacting with citizens. That impatience may make you the next Phuong Ho (an unarmed SJSU student who was beaten by police officers because of their failure to properly assess the actual level of the threat against them while Mr. Ho attempted to look for his glasses).

If, however, the public understands that officers have a tough job because they work excessive hours and suffer from sleep deprivation, then we can fix the problem by hiring more police officers, reducing hours spent on patrol, etc.--steps that will increase an officer's chances of accurately assessing the true level of a threat before resorting to force. But without understanding the actual problems of the job, we will focus on the wrong item--danger--which will increase friction between the public and the police as police continue to use impatient, violent methods of subduing/controlling citizens.

Advancing the truth--that police jobs are tough, but safer than people commonly believe--will mean better safety for all citizens, and better mental health for all police officers.
Also, the more people who understand that it is rare for an officer to be killed on the job due to their excellent training, the more qualified applicants we will receive. Speaking the truth about officer safety is a fight worth having, even if it's a controversial one.


Adam Rogoyski said...

What are you comparing the fatality rate of police officers to when saying it is a safe job? I would not sign up for anything with such low odds of survival.

To put this in a local perspective, this would mean that 3 to 4 passengers who traveled through SJC airport die every day.

Matt Rafat said...

Adam, you've got my attention. Please check back tomorrow for my research on occupational safety rates. I would very much appreciate your insights on tomorrow's post.

For now, don't you think it's misleading to compare passenger safety to occupational safety? I assume millions of passengers travel daily through SJC, so you've picked a comparator that happens to include a massive number. As a result, the percentage risk of a fatality when using massively high numbers--no matter how small--will produce a skewed view of the likelihood of death.

Adam Rogoyski said...

The numbers are not as massive as you think. SJC has 27,000 passengers a day. The same odds which kills 0.3 officers a day would kill 3.75 of those passengers daily. Not good odds at all.

The same odds would kill 4 out of 31,000 San Jose Unified K-12 students a year while at school. Do you want your children attending schools like that?

Would you attend a Golden State Warriors game if you knew 2 to 3 people would die at every game?

Even keeping the same 800,000 number, any occupation of 800,000 which kills 2 of its members every week is too risky for me.

A police-officer job is relatively safe when compared to being a coal miner, but not safe when compared to most other jobs which don't involve people shooting at you or excavating large holes in the ground with heavy machinery and explosives.

Matt Rafat said...

Adam, pls explain your calculations. Assuming 109 deaths in 2008 and around 800,000 law enforcement officers, we have an annual fatality rate of 0.01362%, correct?

Assuming 365 days in a year, the daily fatality rate would be 0.000037%. So taking your SJC example of 27,000 passengers, only 0.01 people would be dead on any particular day, not 3 to 4. (Stated another way, just 1% of an actual person would be at risk of dying at SJC on any given day.) Therefore, it would take 100 days before a single passenger would be statistically likely to die.

Do you consider that "low odds of survival"? Perhaps I am speculating, but you are probably more likely to die commuting from Tracy, CA to San Jose, CA every day as a civilian in the private sector.

Adam Rogoyski said...

109 / 800000 = 0.00014 annual risk of dying as an officer.

9.8 million passengers go through SJC annually. 9,800,000 * 0.00014 = 1371 dead annually, or 1371 / 365 = 3.75 passengers a day.

Keep in mind the units of the calculation:

109 dead/year / 800,000 persons = 0.00014 dead/(persons*year)

9,800,000 persons * 0.00014 dead/(persons*year) = 1371 dead/year.

1371 dead/year / 365 days/year = 3.75 dead/day.

The only reason I mention this is for perspective. If we knew 3.75 people would die flying out of SJC, I would not fly. If we paid each flyer the officers' $100,000 salary to get on the flight (this keeps things comparable), I would still not fly. It would be a great deal for many people -- which explains why people want police-officer jobs -- but it is too risky for me.

Another way to look at this is what is the expected payout of getting on the flight. The survivors get $100,000. What is the dollar value of being killed? The EPA puts a life at $6,900,000 for calculations. With this value, a seat on a flight is still worth $99,000.

If you think your life is worth more, say a billion dollars, then a seat on the flight is worth $-36,000 -- a negative return. I am on this end of the equation. This is why I would not fly with those odds and will never take a job in a risky profession such as law enforcement.

Matt Rafat said...

Adam, thanks for showing me your calculations. It's certainly interesting that we're using the same stats, but arriving at opposite conclusions.

At the same time, my original criticism applies. I noted earlier that "the percentage risk of a fatality when using massively high numbers--no matter how small--will produce a skewed view of the likelihood of death." Your example requires 9.8 million people to be involved. However, the actual number of law enforcement officers is between 300K to 800K. In order to accept your conclusions over mine, we have to use numbers that have no relation whatsoever with the actual number of law enforcement officers.

People who believe police jobs are not safe are failing to make the best argument available--that the annual number of fatalities is irrelevant or incomplete because a) fatalities alone are not a fair indicator of job safety; b) the statistics probably under-report actual injuries, making them unreliable; and c) the statistics I am using are meaningless because they are not specific enough; in other words, there are many different kinds of officers (vice squad v. desk job v. corrections officers, etc.), any reliable statistics must demarcate deaths and injuries by the exact type of police position involved, and my cited statistics fail to achieve this level of detail.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Rogoyski, your math is ok, but the application and methodology is off. Simply put, you have a body of people that is different everyday in its makeup but still only 27,000 people. You come up with 9.8 million by counting a new person for every day a single individual is included in the group. Yet with the 800,000 police, you only count them once for the whole year. In other words, .00014 percent of the commuters dying annually would be 3.78. Not an unheard of death toll on busy city streets. The point of the article is that the police too often cite job stress as an excuse for acts like shooting a stick thin autistic man who is holding an obviously hoky plastic toy gun.