There have been several stories in the news, lately, regarding police officers who have been killed while on duty. This sample essay explores specific cases that are more or less emblematic of the broader trends that are going on and background information that can lend a broader perspective to the police deaths.
Recent cases of police deaths
It is worth considering the following summary of recent events, provided by Ruben, Hennessy-Fiske, and Winton:
“Last week, two Louisiana officers were killed in separate incidents and two officers in Mississippi died in May when they came under fire during a traffic stop. At least 25 police killings in New York, Pennsylvania, San Jose, and elsewhere have rattled police already this year” (paragraph 5).
The cited article itself focused on discussing a police death that recently occurred within the state of Texas. Taken together, this information would seem to convey the immediate impression that there is a rising feeling of hostility against the police within the United States, and that at least some people feel this strongly enough to act on their emotions, resulting in the actual murder of on-duty police officers, presumably motivated by the very fact that the victims do in fact fulfill the professional role of police officer.
Officer Down: Fox Lake, Illinois
One specific case of a likely police death has been reported by Sanchez, in the town of Fox Lake, Illinois:
“Gliniewicz, 52, was on his way to work September 1 in the cruiser he had taken home the day before, police said. He was the kind of cop who considered himself on duty as soon as he rolled into town. Three suspicious men piqued his interest. The lieutenant sent word over his radio at 7:52 a.m. he was pursuing the trio on foot. Three minutes later, he requested backup. Radio communication dropped off. Colleagues would not hear Giniewicz’s voice again” (paragraphs 4-5).
Although it is not clear what exactly happened after this point, what is for certain is that the police officer in question is dead. The lack of resolution or certainty makes this case especially disconcerting, and it becomes more so if it is considered in light of the broader pattern of police officers who have died on the job.
This issue would seem to have been going on for some time. For example, Jonsson reported the murder, all the way back in December of 2014, of two NYPD officers by a man who espoused anti-police feelings on social media” (para. 3). Conceptually, it can obviously be stated that police officers do dangerous jobs, and that the very nature of their work is such that they are likely to provoke a serious sense of antagonism in at least some American residents, either because of perceived injustices done by police officers or because criminal elements within society are necessarily at odds with the police on the basis of simple self-interest. In this connection, it would perhaps be worthwhile to more closely consider the background historical and sociological context within which the recent string of police deaths have been occurring. This could potentially help shed light not only on the nature of the problem but also potentially strategies through which the problem could be resolved so that it does not persist over the course of the coming years. If there is some specific factor that is causing a rise in violence against police specifically at this point in American history, then a discussion of background context could help reveal what this factor may be.
Why more cops being shot: Background information and context
Looking over very recent American history, it is impossible to avoid commenting on the political issue of police brutality against civilians. Freddie Gray, for example, died at the hands of police in the city of Baltimore, Maryland; and President Obama himself, while condemning violent riots, nevertheless acknowledged the legitimacy of the cause of people who wanted to engage in peaceful protests against this incident (Jackson). Another name which comes to mind here is Eric Garner: he died at the hands of police officers in the city of New York. These are specific examples of the broader issue of Black men dying as a result of police officers using extreme and probably unnecessary force against civilians who were not demonstrably dangerous or guilty of any crime in particular. This has been a disconcerting but undeniable trend within the United States over the course of the past couple of years.
It is almost impossible to not pursue the hypothesis that there is at least some kind of causal relationship between the increasing prevalence of police shootings within the United States on the one hand, and the increasing prevalence against on-duty police officers on the other. Essentially, insofar as there is a growing perception that police officer are using their power and authority in an unjust and illegal way, at least some members of the American population can be expected to perceive themselves to more or less be at war with the police: if police officers can illegally attack civilians, then these civilians may begin to feel that they are within their rights in illegally attacking police officers. The point here is not whether this logic is morally coherent. Rather, the only point is that the psychological force of this kind of thinking cannot be denied. Likewise, the recent string of police deaths cannot be considered independently from a recent event of police brutality.
Police shootings: Understanding the statistics
One significant question that can be asked consists of whether a recent string of police deaths is in fact statistically significant, or whether people are actually paying a disproportionate amount of attention to it precisely because of the fact that violence between police officers and civilians has been so present in the news over the last couple years.
Carter, for example, pointed out in the year 2011 that although people often tend to observe short-term increases in violence against police officers, the fact of the matter was that the year 2010 contained just about the lowest rate of violence against cops in a decade. The nature of the modern media is such that people tend to become captivated by immediate phenomena while neglecting a broader perspective that can reveal patterns and trends over time. It is clearly worth taking this cognitive bias into account when considering the long-term significance of the recent string of police deaths.
Likewise, it has always been known that police officers are in a dangerous line of work. There is a great deal of literature, for example, regarding post-traumatic stress disorder among police officers—and there has been for a long time (Robinson, Signman, and Wilson). Police officers encountering violent situations and potentially even dying on the job is not a new phenomenon per se. What is perhaps new, though, is the fact that at least some civilians are now attacking police officers out of a sense of animosity against police officers as such, and not because they are criminals who (for example) get into a firefight with police officers. This shift in motivation, while not statistically relevant, is clearly relevant for a broader sociological understanding of the situation at hand.
Moreover, even at the level of pure statistics, the past couple years do seem to have been characterized by an anomalously high level of violence against police officers. Williams, for example, has reported the following:
“The survey by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a nonprofit group based in Washington, found that 126 law enforcement officers were killed while on duty in 2014, compared with 102 in 2013. Fifteen officers died in ambushes in 2014, compared with five in 2013” (paragraphs 2 and 4).
Even this number regarding ambushes, though, is no higher than the number was for 2012; and the number in the year 1995 was apparently almost double this. The numbers for 2015 have yet to be collected and reported. The most cogent conclusion on the basis of the extant data and information, though, would seem to be that although there has in fact been a spike in violence against the police recently, it is not at all clear that the spike is especially statistically significant, if one expands the timeframe of the analysis to a decade or two decades.
Critical reflection on the phenomenon
On the basis of the above discussion, two main points can be made. The first is that violence involving the police (either by police officers against civilians or by civilians against police officers) has been a dominant subject on the news over the course of the past couple years within the United States. For example, the Justice Department is requiring Cleveland retrain its police force.
As a result, Americans may be especially sensitized to news regarding this subject in these times. Psychologically and emotionally speaking, it is almost impossible to avoid the assumption that the recent string of police deaths is related to recent events of police brutality: since the police have behaved in an illegal way toward civilians, civilians are now choosing to behave in an illegal way toward police. This does not, of course, justify either kind of illegal action. However, at the level of public discourse, there is clearly a relationship between the two issues. There is no way that this can be ignored without distorting the real significance of the issue at hand.
At the statistical level, though, it is unclear as of yet whether there has in fact been a significant increase in violence against police officers over time, and especially in the year 2015. The statistics from the year 2014, at any rate, do not seem to indicate that the situation was especially anomalous in light of comparable statistics from over the past twenty years (Williams). It is entirely possible, of course, that the case with 2015 will prove to be different, especially since several incidences of police brutality have happened over the course of the past year. The only point that needs to made here is that it is important to not confuse publicity with actual statistical evidence: the fact that people are paying more attention to police deaths does not imply that more police officers are actually dying. The latter is a question that must be asked and confirmed or refuted on its own terms.
Law enforcement deaths: Not an easy subject to solve
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of the recent string of police deaths that have appeared on the news. The present essay has affirmed that while this is a serious issue, its real significance cannot be understood apart from the complementary issue of incidences of police brutality over the past year. Moreover, it has also been suggested here that it would perhaps be wise to pay closer attention to the actual statistical evidence regarding violence against police officers over time, in order to avoid becoming captivated by mere media hype. It goes without saying, of course, that even one police officer dying is one too many, just as one civilian dying at the hands of police officers is one too many. However, the statistical context could help provide a broader perspective regarding whether the present situation really is anomalous, or whether it only appears that way as a result of a lack of perspective.
Carter, Pauley Parmeley. “Is Violence against Cops Really Increasing?” Cop Block. 5 Apr. 2011. Web. 9 Jan. 2015. http://www.copblock.org/2198/is-violence-against-cops-really-increasing/.
Jackson, David. “Obama: We Can’t Brush Aside Baltimore Issues.” USA Today. 29 Apr. 2015. Web. 3 May 2015. http://www.usatoday.com/story/theoval/2015/04/29/obama-steve-harvey-baltimore-riots-police/26561481/.
Jonsson, Patrick. “Anti-Police Violence as Hate Crime: Do Officers Need More Legal Cover?” Christian Science Monitor. 6 Jan. 2015. Web. 9 Jan. 2015. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2015/0106/Anti-police-violence-as-hate-crime-Do-officers-need-more-legal-cover
Robinson, H. M., Sigman, M. R., Wilson, J. P. “Duty-Related PTSD Symptoms in Suburban Police officers. Psychological Report 81 (1997): 835-845. Print. XRubin, Joel, Molly Hennessy-Fiske, and Richard Winton. “Police Worry about Own Safety after Killings: ‘It’s a Different World’. Los Angeles Times. 31 Aug. 2015. Web. 6 Oct. 2015. http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-blue-lives-matter-20150831-story.html
Sanchez, Ray. “Mystery Deepens in Death of Police Officer in Fox Lake, Illinois.” CNN. 11 Sep. 2015. Web. 6 Oct. 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/10/us/illinois-police-officer-mystery/
Williams, Timothy. “Number of Police Killed on the Job Climbs.” New York Times. 30 Dec. 2014. Web. 6 Oct. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/31/us/death-toll-climbs-for-on-duty-police-officers-in-2014.html?_r=0.
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