It is common wisdom both within and outside law enforcement circles that policing is dangerous business. While workers in several other U.S. occupations (for example, timber cutting, commercial fishing, and construction) are killed on the job at rates higher than police officers, policing is one of the few lines of work that include an ever-present threat of being attacked and killed by fellow humans. In addition, the fact that officers are regularly involved in hazardous activities that do not involve criminal activity directed at them (for example, emergency driving, handling vehicle mishaps, search and rescue) means that police work involves an elevated risk of being accidentally injured or killed. The degree of danger officers face can be seen in records kept by the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI), which indicate that in the decade ending in 2003, 697 officers died in accidents, another 688 were murdered, and tens of thousands of officers suffered injuries in the 550,000-plus assaults that citizens perpetrated against U.S. cops (the FBI does not keep records on officers who are accidentally injured).
Despite the fact that officers are more likely to die in accidents than to be slain in the line of duty, popular conceptions (both within policing and among the general public) of the dangers inherent in police work focus on the threat from criminal attack. This outlook has profound consequences for how officers think about and carry out their duties, which, in turn, have profound consequences for public perceptions of the police. We provide an empirical sketch of key points related to the threat officers face from criminal attack and discuss how officers’ perceptions about the dangers of being attacked shape both how police work is done and how the public views the police.
The aforementioned FBI data include a good deal of information about numerous aspects of assaults perpetrated against police officers. This information indicates that officers are killed and assaulted in a wide variety of circumstances and ways and that the circumstances and means of attack vary markedly between lethal and nonlethal assaults. While the vast majority of nonfatal assaults (some 80%) involved no weapon and fewer than 4% were perpetrated with firearms, more than 90% of the officers murdered (excluding the seventy-two officers who perished in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001) were killed with firearms. Fewer than 1% died in unarmed attacks.
Regarding the circumstances of attacks, the FBI data (again excluding the 9/11 deaths) indicate that the single most dangerous sort of activity during the past decade was attempting to take suspects into custody, with just above 30% of the officers killed trying to make arrests when they were murdered. Four other types of activities each accounted for about 16% of fatal attacks: traffic stops and pursuits, handling disturbance calls, investigating suspicious persons, and ambushes. Finally, about 3% of murdered officers were killed while handling or transporting prisoners, and 2% were killed while dealing with mentally deranged individuals.
The FBI data provide more precise information about three of the sorts of circumstances in which officers were mur-dered—disturbance calls, arrests, and ambushes—and a closer look discloses some interesting patterns. The FBI differentiates between family quarrels and all other types of disturbances. Fifty-seven of the ninety-eight officers slain during disturbance calls were handling family quarrels, which indicates that domestics are the most dangerous sort of disturbance that officers are called upon to deal with. The FBI divides arrest situations into those involving burglaries, robberies, drugs, and all other sorts of crimes. More officers, sixty four, were killed while attempting arrests for robbery than any other single crime. Drug-related arrests cost thirty-six officers their lives, twenty-three officers were murdered while trying to arrest burglars, and sixty-four others were killed while attempting to make arrests for crimes besides robbery, burglary, and drug offenses. Finally, the FBI identifies two different types of ambush: spontaneous and premeditated attacks. Sixty-three of the one hundred officers who were killed in ambushes died in unprovoked attacks, while the other thirty- seven were murdered by assailants who had a premeditated plan to kill them.
The patterns evident in the FBI data on attacks on officers show that some police tasks are more dangerous than others. They also indicate that officers are susceptible to being attacked in virtually any situation. These two features of the police environment have important implications for how officers approach their jobs.
Because the threat of assault is ever present, officers seek ways to mitigate the risks they face by employing a variety of tactics designed to lower the chances they will be hurt. This approach to the job begins in the academy when young officers are taught that they must always be vigilant in all their dealings with citizens, so as to not be taken by surprise. Recruits are also taught what the FBI statistics show about the relative danger of various law enforcement actions: that they are more likely to be killed when making arrests, dealing with disturbances, and so on, and that they should be especially cautious when called upon to handle these sorts of situations.
When rookie officers take to the streets upon completing their academy training, they learn additional lessons from veteran officers about how to protect themselves in their dealings with citizens. One of the things that young officers learn as they work with their more experienced peers is to look for signs that the people, situations, and places they encounter might pose a greater than normal risk to them. In this way then, officers are constantly sizing up the potential for danger as they go about their business. When officers perceive that a specific person, place, or situation involves heightened danger, they take steps to mitigate it. Such action might involve conducting a “pat down” search of a suspicious individual, parking some distance away from and observing a dwelling that is known as a drug den when dispatched to investigate a disturbance therein, or calling for assistance before getting involved in certain sorts of situations. Thus do perceptions of danger influence how officers behave in the field.
One of the first commentators to recognize how the threat of physical harm shapes the outlook and actions of police officers was Jerome Skolnick, who studied a group of California detectives in the early 1960s. Extrapolating from the observations he made, Skolnick asserted that officers’ concerns about the danger inherent in their job was a key determinant of the occupational orientation—or “working personality”—of police officers. One danger-driven aspect of the police working personality, according to Skolnick, is the development of a perceptual shorthand for identifying those individuals who were most likely to attack them. Individuals who exhibit the signs of increased danger— “symbolic assailants” as Skolnick dubbed them—are more likely to be stopped and dealt with carefully.
Unfortunately, the cues that officers sometimes use to identify citizens as potentially dangerous (for example, dress and status characteristics) are features that are shared by many individuals who have no intention of harming the police. When officers view and treat innocent citizens as symbolic assailants, both the citizens in question and members of the public at large can take offense, which can lead to problems such as heightened racial tensions and damage to police-community relations. That innocent citizens can (and do) take offense at some of the practices that officers use to protect themselves from the very real dangers they face presents a challenge to our society. On the one hand, citizens have the right to expect to be free from government intrusion in the form of unreasonable police intervention in their lives. On the other, officers must be able to behave in ways that reduce their exposure to danger.
In recent years, many police agencies have taken steps to reduce the fallout potential posed by officers’ protective posture. One component of this is to educate members of the public through means such as citizen police academies about the dangers officers face and how they are trained to deal with these dangers. Another is to provide officers with training that is designed to ensure that the self-protective steps they employ violate neither citizens’ rights nor their sense of probity. Despite such actions, however, police officers do not always comport themselves at the highest level of police professionalism, and some members of the public take offense even when officers do their jobs 100% correctly. As a consequence, the down side of the protective actions that officers take cannot be eliminated entirely from police work. Because of this, the danger that officers face on the streets of America will continue to be a source of tension between the police and the public.