Last week, in the Bay Area, we have had endless coverage about a certain law enforcement officer who was killed on the job recently. I don’t want to mention his name or put in details. The man is dead and that is sad for his friends and family. But I didn’t know him. I had never heard of him before. And so I don’t care except in the sense that I don’t like to see people murdered. But his death and the preparations for the funeral and then the funeral itself were given blanket coverage. Oh what a great man! Well, maybe.
But here’s the thing: sometimes drug counselors get murdered. But we don’t have week long remembrances of them. We don’t turn them into heroes who make local newscasters tear up on screen. If it isn’t a police officer, it is just news. But if it is a police officer, then we have to pretend that Hector himself was slain out their on the mean streets. And I have a real problem with that. It goes quite a bit beyond the very real problem of minimizing all the other senseless murder victims. It makes the abuse of our criminal justice system that much more acceptable.
While making dinner the night of the funeral, the local news did a segment on all the people — 5,000 of them! — who came to the memorial. The point of it was all the generic people who had been touched by this officer. But there apparently couldn’t find any people who had been touched by him. Instead, it was people who had shown up because the whole thing was getting pushed in the media. And their comments showed this, right up to one guy who talked about how dangerous police work is and how they don’t know if they are coming home alive when they go to work. (This is not true.)
A big part of the problem we have with policing is that the current generation of law enforcement thinking is convinced that protecting the community is a secondary goal of police work. The number one thing that the police must do — as far as they are concerned — is to protect themselves. This is why tasers must be used at the slightest provocation. This is why civilians who don’t show enough “respect” must be arrested — and often brutalized as well. This is why every angry confrontation becomes an opportunity for officers to fear for their lives.
But all week as I have seen the lead-up to this funeral and all the coverage of the great tragedy of his death, I’ve noticed something that no one is covering: it’s unusual. The majority of police officers who die on the job, do so in traffic accidents. Thus far this year, there are almost as many health related deaths (mostly heart attacks) as shooting deaths.
I suspect that this big media deal will be seen by most people as indicative of the wonderfulness of the dead officer. But it is really just that the form of his death is fairly unusual. There have only been 17 shooting deaths of police officers this year. That’s a 0.003% chance of death in any given year — not that much more likely than anyone in the US is to die in a car crash. But the big deal made out of this officer’s death will push the idea that it is common and that police work is very dangerous. And that idea is very dangerous for our society.