We expect more casualties when we engage the enemy more aggressively. Could it be that the increase in officer murders this year means that we are doing our job better than ever? Much of the speculation about officer deaths assumes that all other factors remain equal. But surely the number of fallen heroes is not the only factor changing in the equation. We tend to measure officer deaths against the statistics of previous years, or as a ratio of officers to population, or in comparison to other crime categories. These measures may fail to give us what we are looking for.
Potentially lethal assaults are mitigated by ballistics vests and better trauma care, so the raw data of dead police officers may yield less life-saving information than we might wish. Are police-suspect encounters fundamentally different than in the past, or are officers simply more engaged than ever before? Officers may be having more violent encounters because they are having more of all kinds of encounters. Here are some hypotheses:
The Technology of Response Time
Cell phones are ubiquitous — they have become cheap and accessible — which means there is a marked increase in the chances that a witness or victim will have the means to immediately call the police. More cell phones, more reporting of crimes in progress, more police contact with active suspects.
There may have been a time when a criminal would take a chance on lying his or her way out of a police contact. Due partly to fact and partly to fiction-fuelled perception, there may be a sense of inevitability of capture that makes bad guys more inclined to fight it out. The fact that we do our job as well as we do may put more people in the system, in a sense “creating” more criminals to deal with.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
Theories that good boys go bad to feed their family when no job is available are weak. What is true is that during times of low tax revenues, governments tend to try to house fewer criminals. That likely means more leniency, more parolees and probationers, and fewer bad actors behind bars. The result more people on the street who are at risk of prison with police contact — another reason to resist and assault the police.
Crime mapping, although not practiced everywhere, has brought renewed attention to wise deployment of police officers. If we are successful in that deployment the expected result is more officers near criminal activity. If we take the fight to the criminal, we have to expect the fight.
More services and advocacy for victims, if successful, will result in empowering more people to report criminal behavior. Increases in protection orders and other brushes with the criminal justice system may not show up in traditional crime statistics while still impacting police contacts.
Cop Hate or Cop Love?
Higher trust of police officers will likely translate into more information shared by citizens. If we have become a more trusted profession we will get more tips, leads, and reports than before. More information will translate into more intervention and more contacts with suspects.
Lack of Training or Better Training?
Some trainers fear that a rise in officer deaths is due to poor training. A contrary theory is that the profession has more confident, better trained officers who are more assertive. This would result in more contacts and necessarily increases the probability of resistive encounters.
None of these possibilities excuse, rationalize, or make any officer death acceptable. The best hope for reducing mortality is mining data to construct our training and response to deal with the causes. The immediate reality is that when we engage the enemy there will be casualties, not all of which are preventable except by failing to engage at all. If there is any consolation in examining these sacrifices it may be that we are a more confident, trusted, and efficient profession than ever before.