Police Unions Say Demilitarization Puts Cops at Risk. They’re Wrong.

It's never been safer to be a cop, and machine guns won't help

Year after year, we see stories about how police work is incredibly dangerous and becoming more dangerous by the day.

We hear that officers are “under siege,” that departments are in “wartime” status, that it’s “open season” on police.

Right-wing pundits warn there is a “war on cops,” and that militarization — in tactics, as well as equipment — is the price we must pay to keep the peace.

This is the counter-narrative to stories of abuse and misconduct from around the country: Criticism of police is unjustified and jeopardizes officer safety.

When a man shot his girlfriend and then killed two NYPD officers last December, the union chief said New York Mayor Bill De Blasio had “blood on his hands” because he sympathized with protests over the killing of Eric Garner.

The Daily Caller reports that “the anti-police climate is taking its toll” and “morale is low in departments across the country.” One retired officer told the DC: “Morale is low because we don’t have the public’s backing.”

Now the White House plans to curtail the provision of free military equipment to police — prohibiting the Pentagon from transferring .50-caliber weapons and ammo, grenade launchers, bayonets, and armed aircraft or vehicles to local law enforcement. Predictably, the unions are howling, accusing the president of “politicizing cop safety.”

“The [Fraternal Order of Police] is the most aggressive law enforcement advocacy group in Washington, and we will be at our most aggressive in asserting the need for officer safety and officer rights in any police changes that are to be effected,” said FOP executive director James Pasco.

It’s a little disturbing to see the unions blandly assert that police have “rights” to free military aircraft, grenade launchers, and turret-mounted .50-caliber machine guns. Some of those weapons can send rounds through a city block — how’s that for “community policing”?

There’s obviously no legitimate law enforcement purpose for such weapons, so expect the FOP to instead focus on the increasing dangers of policing today.

A number of stories this month have carried this angle, with headlines like “FBI: Number of Slain US Police Officers Increases 89%” and “Startling Increase in Police Officers Killed.”

These stories are true, but misleading. According to the FBI, there were 27 police murdered in 2013 and 51 in 2014.

But 2013 was the safest year for police in decades: it saw the fewest fatalities (work-related deaths from any cause) of any year since World War II, the fewest firearms-related deaths of any year since 1887, and the fewest felony murders since the FBI began keeping track in 1980.

Comparing any year to 2013's record lows would show a big relative increase. But, in fact, 2014 had just three more killings than 2012 (48 murders), and 21 fewer than 2011 (72 murders), and well below the annual historical average since 1980 (64 murders).

In the last few decades, law enforcement has been getting safer in every way we can measure. The absolute numbers of fatalities and murders are down. Fatalities and murders per capita are way down. Fatalities and murders per cop are also down.

And it’s not merely that officers today are being saved by bulletproof vests and better emergency care. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, cops are not just being saved more often — they are also being attacked less frequently. Rates of assaults and injury suffered by police declined 48% and 58% respectively since 1992.

This is not to say that policing isn’t a difficult job: officers have to deal with difficult and potentially injurious situations on a daily basis. I don’t envy the task. But it’s safer to be a cop today than any time in recent history.

Cops today are not uniquely at risk or facing unique dangers. Violent crime has fallen by half since the early 1990s. Assaults, injuries, and killings of police are all down. Terrorism is so rare it barely registers compared to common murder. There isn’t an epidemic of anti-police attacks, and it’s not true that guns are more widespread or more of a threat today.

Nor is there an “anti-police climate.” Protests against specific police misconduct notwithstanding, law enforcement hasn’t lost the public’s backing — yet. Gallup’s annual “confidence in institutions” poll shows very little change in public confidence in the police over the last couple decades.

In short, the kind of risks that cops face do not require machine guns, military helicopters, or bayonets to deal with.

The easiest way to improve officer safety is the advice that’s splashed over public service announcements everywhere: buckle up. Police compliance with seatbelt laws is about 50% (the public overall is about 86%), and 10 of the 28 officers who died in car accidents in 2014 were not buckled.

Requiring police to wear bullet-resistant vests would also help a lot. A quarter of the 46 cops shot to death last year were not wearing their vests, and FBI data shows that more than a third of officers killed in shootings over the last decade did not have vests on.

While the new federal rules ban giveaways of certain powerful weaponry (and require PDs to give “persuasive reasons” for acquiring other equipment, like armored trucks), they do not compromise officer safety in any way. The White House went out of its way to guarantee that departments can still get bulletproof vests and other body armor from federal programs without any new hurdles.

Don’t believe the unions’ hype. Cops don’t need military gear to enforce the law and keep themselves reasonably safe doing it.