Yes, Police Deaths Were Up in 2014. Here's Why That's Misleading
There was a 56 percent increase in firearm-related cop deaths from 2013 to 2014, according to the report, released by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder even weighed in, saying in a statement that the report's "troubling statistics underscore the very real dangers that America's brave law enforcement officers face every time they put on their uniforms."
With the December 20 murders of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu still fresh on everyone's mind, the report quickly gained traction with the media. And with increasing talk about police under attack in the wake of the Eric Garner and Ferguson grand jury decisions, we'll probably continue to hear that 56 percent statistic in the coming days and weeks. But it really doesn't reveal what people seem to think it does.
Regardless of the jump in 2014 and the high-profile attack here in New York City, the number of shootings of police officers has been trending down for years. As the report itself explains, the year-over-year spike is actually the result of a huge drop in police shootings in 2013. The number for 2014 simply looks large by comparison.
For 2013, the Memorial Fund reported, the number of police shootings — thirty-one nationwide — was at an anomalous, 120-year low. And while the group framed the increase in 2014 as a dramatic and worrying rise — a total of fifty officers were killed with guns this year — that number is actually below the yearly average of fifty-three over the past ten years.
In other words, what the report really shows is that the number of police killed with guns is still declining.
The report does note an uptick in what it calls "ambush style" attacks on officers — fifteen this year as compared to ten in 2013 — but that term isn't defined in the report. (The FBI, for one, apparently had a different definition of ambush-style attacks in 2013; the Fund counted ten such attacks that year, the FBI only five.) No one at the Fund could be reached for comment late on Wednesday.
The shooting of Ramos and Liu has taken on increasing political significance in the nearly two weeks since it occurred. Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the major NYPD union, has declared that the NYPD is now a "wartime" department, and explicitly blamed the murders on anti-police protests and Mayor Bill de Blasio. There's now a quasi-open rebellion among the NYPD rank and file, who appear to be engaged in a dramatic work slowdown, even as crime is at a historic low.
A press release that accompanied last week's report also seemed to tie the increase in police deaths directly to recent protests and anti-police rhetoric:
"With the increasing number of ambush-style attacks against our officers, I am deeply concerned that a growing anti-government sentiment in America is influencing weak-minded individuals to launch violent assaults against the men and women working to enforce our laws and keep our nation safe," declared the Memorial Fund's chairman and CEO, Craig W. Floyd. "Enough is enough. We need to tone down the rhetoric and rally in support of law enforcement and against lawlessness."
That's a worrying implication, says Robert Gangi with the Police Reform Organizing Project. The idea that police are being targeted in vastly increased numbers contributes to a siege mentality among officers that isn't helpful for anyone. Misleading statistical data or hyped-up rhetoric, he adds — like that employed by Lynch — just increases tensions.
"It would be better if the NYPD didn't feel under siege. It would be better if they didn't have the kind of leadership that comes from Pat Lynch, who contributes to that siege mentality," Gangi says. And it's wrongheaded, he continues, to link the largely peaceful protests in New York and across the country to any uptick in police fatalities.
"Despite the fact that some of the signs and some of the chants, certainly in my view, were ugly and stupid, and inhumane," he says, "that's still a very small number of people."