More on the “Police Work Is Dangerous” Myth

Ted McLaughlinI’ve written a number of times before about a relative safety of police work. But recently, Ted McLaughlin at Job’s Anger provided more detailed information than I’ve been able to find, Police Officers Do NOT Have the Most Dangerous Jobs. So I thought we should go through the issue again. The point is not that police work should be dangerous. All human activities should be safe as possible. But the issue with policing is that as a society, we make such a big deal of the danger of police work. And this is used as an excuse for all manner of police abuse and incompetence. This would be bad enough if it were true that police work were really dangerous. But even that isn’t true.

One thing that I hear all the time is an officer saying (and more commonly, it being said for them), “When I leave for work, I don’t know if I’m coming home that night.” While technically true, it is also technically true of literally every person who leaves for work. Or you want to take it to absurd levels? “When I take a bath, I don’t know if I’m leaving that bathroom alive.” It’s true! In 2000, 341 Americans drown while taking a bath.

Most Dangerous Jobs

But you might counter this, “Yeah, but people drowning aren’t shot by criminals!” True enough. But most people who drown seem to fall and hit their heads. And here’s the thing: most police officers are not shot by criminals either. I discussed this in a related article, Let’s Not Turn Dead Police Officers Into Heroes. I noted, “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.” So really, the most dangerous thing about being a police officer is driving so much — it means accidents and bad health because they sit around so much.

Ted also presented a chart that shows both total and violent deaths of police officers has gone down by almost a third in the last ten years. I know that Ted worked in and around law enforcement. He’s got a more positive view of the industry. I tend to think there is a more fundamental problem: police work (like politics) tends to attract the wrong kind of people for those jobs. But I think he is right that the issue is mostly one of management. The problem could clearly be minimized with better management. I am always reminded of something Jim Hogshire[1] wrote in You Are Going to Prison, “Rape and other forms of violence happens in any prison in inverse proportion to the amount of time and effort the prison’s administrators put into stopping it.” I think it is largely the same thing in police departments.

But my interest in the subject is primarily about the way that police officers spend so much time whining about how difficult and dangerous their jobs are. And the bigger issue is that we as a society allow them to do it. I respect police officers in the same way that I respect any civil servants. They are people paid to do a job. They have a fair amount of power. I don’t want to make their lives hard. But I won’t stand for their abuse of power. And the “police work is dangerous” myth is nothing but an apologia for police misconduct.[2]

[1] Jim was a taxicab driver in Texas many years ago. According to the graph above, that is a more danger job than being a police officer. He told me that he once crashed his cab when a customer threatened him with a gun. Jim was certain he was going to be murdered.

[2] It’s very possible that the myth is also helpful in keeping police salaries high. I don’t want to see their salaries lowered, however. I want to see effort made to bring back the middle class so that their quite reasonable salaries don’t stand out.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

6 thoughts on “More on the “Police Work Is Dangerous” Myth

  1. This is interesting, some points I had not considered. Though the area an officer works might make a difference. It’s still no excuse for bad behavior.

    • That’s true. In my experience, officers who work is dangerous areas are nicer. It’s the ones who just sit on their butts all day that are most likely to get lost in their sense of being owed respect.

      • When I read a little while ago the account of a New York cop who tried to reform the Minneapolis police department, he said he had to pay some guys just to sit around and do nothing. Because they couldn’t be fired (which is fine, good union) and their attitude was so corrosive he didn’t want them around younger cops.

        I finally got “Between The World And Me” (long library wait list) and it’s shattering. I spent a day reading everything else by Coates I could find on the Web, and it was all brilliant (although I don’t understand comic books as much as fans do.) The bottom line is if a cop “accidentally” shot a white teenager because he “matched a subject’s description,” that cop would at least never carry a gun again, would probably be made to leave the force, and would very possibly be criminally prosecuted. If it were a black cop, she/he’d definitely be prosecuted.

        It’s astounding how reluctant people are to acknowledge this; it’s basic. I’m very grateful to Coates for describing so vividly the terror this results in (after all, it is terrorism) since we’re so isolated as a society we have almost no connection with each other, much less connections with people outside our narrow social walls. (I don’t know anyone anymore, maybe five or ten at best, and I don’t know most of them well.)

        • Coates is great. I don’t even read his stuff on comic books. I’ve tried but I don’t get it and it’s not my thing. But it’s nice to know there’s a little nerd living inside him as well. I’ve got the book but I just haven’t been able to get to it. I will probably read it this weekend. I like short polemics. And he’s a wonderful writer, so I expect to fly through it. I did just finish The New Prophets of Capital — another short polemic. I highly recommend it.

  2. Another myth about police officers is that they are racist, which is completely wrong as right from beginning they are taught that all people are similar and must be dealt in accordance with the law. Moreover, the police academy during the recruitment, hiring and training process disregards all forms of discrimination on the basis of race, cast, colour or creed.

    • The problems with racism in policing are the same as in society. Most people (police and not) don’t intend to be prejudiced. This last month I read a survey of research on police stops during the day vs the night. They did find a significant difference with police stopping blacks more in the day indicating a racial bias.

      I don’t like the focus on “bad” cops because it hides the real issue, which is systemic. Even if the police were perfectly neutral with the law, it would still present a greater burden for minority groups because they represent an underclass in our society. I know that training and management can go a long way to fixing these problems. But ultimately, we need to fix the entire society.

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