A loved one recently reached out to me to share a 14-minute Tucker Carlson clip that featured half a dozen stories of Black people physically or verbally attacking police officers. “It is just so disturbing to me that this is happening,” they wrote. “I see it as the logical end result of the anti-police rhetoric that is currently so prevalent. If this were an isolated incident it would be awful. That it seems to be happening more and more frequently is horrifying.”
Given that two police officers were shot in Louisville, Kentucky during protests over the decision to not charge the cops who killed Breonna Taylor, it might seem that, indeed, we’re reaching a state of anti-cop chaos previously unseen in the United States.
The only problem with that view is that it’s not true. Police officers were far more likely to be killed in the early 1970s.
The chart above, from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, doesn’t include the year 2020, but FBI data does.
According to FBI data, only 70 police officers have been killed from the beginning of this year to early September (the latest data available at the time of this writing). If this trend continues, it will put the total number of police deaths in 2020 around 100, compared to 280 in 1974.
In other words, even this year, which has been full of extreme unrest, isn’t anywhere close to as bad as were the 1970s when it comes to violence against the police. This is especially true because we have more police officers today, so the percentage of total police deaths is much smaller today than it was back then.
So why is there so much panic about police officers getting killed today?
Part of it is because channels like Fox News play sensational video clips on repeat, especially if they’re clips about Black people attacking the police. For instance, as soon as I saw the clip of the police officers who were ambushed in their car by a Black man, I knew Fox would show it a few hundred times over the next several weeks because that’s what they do. It’s all a dog whistle — a wink wink, nudge nudge.
All the while, they’re far less likely to play clips about people like Ryan Hendricks, a police officer killed by a white man. (That story didn’t make the cut in Carlson’s 14-minute compilation even though the story was just as timely.)
Right-wing media is also unlikely to dwell on stories about the cops killing people, even though cops in America kill at unconscionable rates.
Which leads to the other reason there’s so much panic about police officer deaths today: People want the police to stop killing so readily. They especially want them to stop disproportionately killing Black people.
It’s unsurprising, then, that anti-police protests result in increased anti-police rhetoric and may also end up resulting in slightly more police deaths this year than we saw last year. That’s not okay, and any death is a tragedy.
However, considering that police deaths are still a fraction of what they were in the 1970s, it seems like all this panic about police deaths is unfounded. Sure, some people say some mean things to police today, but swearing at police has existed for decades. It just seems more intense today because everything’s caught on camera and because Tucker Carlson repeats clips for heightened effect while wearing his “concerned face.”
None of this means that people should stop protesting our police. Our police kill around 1,000 people a year. It’s clear we need a new justice system — perhaps one like in Norway or Iceland, where police kill zero or nearly zero people annually and where those who commit crime are treated with dignity.
In the meantime, we should be honest that compared to previous decades, police deaths are down, not up. The panic is misplaced.