Friday, January 10, 2014

Police Deaths On Duty Decline for 2013

I have returned to the contrived trappings of civilization, but not from my usual sojourn in the wooded or rocky wilderness left to the great Pacific Northwest, but from the confines of my own home.  All of the family – all of it – came to visit, the offspring and grandchildren, and now all of the spouses and betrothed, and their friends.  Never such a dear and sizeable horde has dwelt beneath our roof.  It is a delight to see them all, even if it be through the haze of exhaustion.

Topics galore are built up and awaiting my disquisition, hungry as my vast public must be for my sundry opinions.  (Why else, Dear Reader, would you spend a brief nonce drifting over these words?  Welcome.)  I will respond as circumstances permit.
The first item here that caught my eye was from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ('intelligent as a post' – was it Dave Barry?) that briefly speaks of a sharp decline nationally in the deaths of policemen on duty.  (Is there a current politically correct term for 'policeman' that doesn't offend the practiced sensibilities of feminists?  I don't care.)  This is good news, certainly, but I can't resist a bit of analysis.

Specifically, the study from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) states that in 2013, the number of law enforcement officers – "federal, state, local, tribal and territorial" – who died in the line of duty fell to 111, compared to 121 in 2012 and 169 in 2011.  [Note: corrections officers are included in the tally.  There are some who draw distinctions between corrections officers and patrol officers – not so here.]  This is the lowest total number of LEO deaths on duty since 1959 (110).

Within those figures for 2013, they break out the number of deaths due to "firearms" (as opposed to "traffic" and "other") which this year came in at 33.  This is the lowest number in this category since 1887 (27).

Traffic-related incidents accounted for the highest number of fatalities at 46, and the "other" category clocked in at 32, including 14 who died of heart attacks.

Some observations:

The NLEOMF study cannot resist the use of percentages.  Statistics are highly manipulative and meanings can be fungible, particularly involving numbers this low.  (A single death, of course, is a tragedy, but here we are speaking of just numbers, compared to the population as a whole or the population of LEOs, some 795,000 in the US.)  Thus, comments such as a reported drop of 4% in traffic-related deaths from the last year (from 48 to 46) seem rather silly, a rounding error, and bring to mind such observations that an economist uses decimal points to prove that he has a sense of humor.

The comparisons in the article are to the numbers of only one or two years ago.  But 2011 saw a spike in numbers, slightly up from the total of about 155 in 2010, but much higher than 2009 with about 128.  Then again, 2007 saw a spike of about 190, up from about 160 the year before.  In other words, the numbers are highly volatile and reasons for numbers in this relatively small category subject to any number of explanations.  (A sharp rise of 240 deaths in 2001 was due no doubt to the 72 officers killed as a direct result of the attacks of 11 September, listed in the "other" category.)  An examination of the study itself, presented only as a brief aperçu, gives one a picture of how varied the numbers can be from year to year.

One hopes that the trend continues, but trends always continue until they stop (a social version of Newton's First Law).

This does not deter the NLEOMF from claiming that the drop in traffic deaths and deaths by firearms can be attributed to their push for greater safety considerations, and they may be right though I feel the results are inconclusive.  Traffic-related deaths may be down due to more communities enacting restraints on police pursuit of fleeing criminals – a controversy that raises the question of more crimes committed by the criminals that get away.

(I remember many years ago in Corpus Christi, speaking with an older gentleman who witnessed a police traffic accident.  This was back in the days when sitting on one's front porch was common, and late one sultry evening he saw a police car come flying off the highway exit in front of his home and crash while attempting to make the sharp turn at the immediate intersection.  The news reported that the policeman was in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect, but the gentleman smilingly disagreed with that analysis, telling me that he never saw any other car that time of night.  Perhaps, he said, the policeman in question was enjoying the unwritten privilege of making up his own traffic laws and came to suddenly realize why the standard limitations apply to us all, but the public at large was spared the real explanation.)

When we see pursuits on cable news channels, we are joining the action after the full force of police cars and particularly helicopters are in place and the criminal is by then only running out the clock until he is captured.  How many criminals escape outside large urban areas that can afford such logistical, personnel and communications support?

Admittedly, the first thought that came to mind was the Fox Butterfield Fallacy, a term coined by James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal after the series of articles by the New York Times reporter who raised the preposterous question of why the incarceration rate in the US continued to rise despite a drop in crime.  The NLEOMF study examines only the number of police fatalities, but does not address the crime rate.

The way that the categories are delineated needs some adjustment.  Last year, two officers were stabbed to death while a third was killed by a bomb (as it so happens, in a small city about 50 miles north of here).  These three are listed in the "other" category, distinct from the "firearms" list.  But these three were nevertheless the victims of deadly assaults by criminals.  What is the purpose of the survey: are we focused on police safety, or use of firearms?  Likewise the sub-category of police struck by vehicles: we can imagine an officer struck by a negligent driver while writing a ticket for a speeder he has pulled over, but how many were struck as a result of vehicular homicide, targeted and deliberately run down?  On the other hand, two of the shooting fatalities were accidental.  It seems to me that a category of "deadly assault" would be more appropriate.

As for the "firearms" category, the NLEOMF claims that increased emphasis on protective gear is a factor in the drop, but to give that a proper consideration, we would also have to know the number of police shootings, i.e. the number of police shot who survived.  To understand this as a factor of crime rate, we would also have to know of the number of incidents where police were shot at without effect.  Simply presenting the number of deaths from firearms is inadequate.

The best time of day to be a cop is between 2:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon (no deaths at all), apparently while criminals are resting up from the activities of the night before (the worst time is 11:00 to midnight – eight deaths).  This reminds me that the same early afternoon time period during the Viet Nam War seemed to show a similar plummet in firefights and contacts, reflecting that both Charlie and us Round-eyes knocked off for lunch.  As for days of the week, the worst numbers of fatalities start once the criminals are off their day jobs – Friday (22), Saturday (18), Sunday (16) – though Tuesday oddly enough clocks in at 17.

As for firearm deaths, the largest reason was due to ambush (7, down from 15 in 2012), but the fatalities in response to disturbances was 9 (up from 4), broken into general disturbances (6) and domestic disturbances (the dread of every cop) at 3.  Fatal shootings during traffic stops dropped to 3 from 10 the year before.  But again, numbers this statistically low over a period of only one year are basically insignificant in terms of a trend.

[Note: for some reason, Blogspot is not permitting the posting of illustrations.  Please click on the NLEOMF study to view the graphs.]

1 comment:

  1. Could be the criminals have figured out, due to incidents like the police murder of Miriam Carey, that Officer Friendly is more inclined to shoot than to ask questions. Several recent incidents underscore the idea, including a man shot to death after a traffic stop and a teenager killed in his home.


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