With lots of media attention on law enforcement officers who’ve been killed in the line of duty recently, you probably think the number of attacks on them is up. But University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton, who’s a former police officer himself, says assaults on police and line-of-duty deaths are actually down.
“There is certainly an increase in public criticism. There is an increase in the rhetoric, both the amount and the tone of the rhetoric that’s being used in the public criticism of cops,” he says. But he’s been crunching the numbers and they show a decrease.
“The average number of officers killed, and it’s a 10-year average, as of last year is 50.5,” he says. “That’s down from a high, a 10-year average, in 1980 of almost 115 officers feloniously killed every year. There’s been a steady progression from the 1970s until today, and right now 2015 is on track to be the second-safest year on record for officers.”
He says there are probably several reasons behind most people assuming the numbers are up when the opposite is true.
“There’s this cognitive bias called the frequency illusion. When we are aware of something, when we are paying attention to something, we notice it more often. Think of seeing a word on the news or in a book that you don’t see very often, and you say, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting.’ And the next two days, you’re going to feel like that word’s all over the place. You’re going to see it everywhere. Well that word is no more frequent than it was before, but you’re now attuned to it. You’re paying attention,” he says.
“To some extent, that frequency illusion is leading us to believe, because we’re paying attention to officers being killed, that they’re being killed more frequently than they actually are.”
He says another reason is all the media attention on high-profile cases, like the murder of Harris County Texas deputy Darren Goforth, who was shot and killed as he pumped gas into his patrol car.
The incorrect perception can actually cause problems. Stoughton says, “An officer who is feeling generally defensive and threatened may be interacting in a one-on-one basis with someone differently. They may be more inclined to see threat. They may be more inclined to use force. We don’t have statistical support for that, but it’s possible.”
Ryan Alphin, executive director of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers’ Association, says even if the numbers are down, “Officers still feel targeted.” He says there’s a negative sentiment toward law enforcement and it’s hurting larger departments’ ability to recruit new officers, deputies and troopers. He says applications are down 30 to 40 percent in some larger departments.
Both Stoughton and Alphin say part of the decrease in officers being killed is likely due to improved medical care, so officers who are shot have a better chance of surviving. There’s also been an increased use of body armor. But in addition to line-of-duty deaths being down, assaults on officers are also down, according to FBI statistics.