Safer to Be a Cop Than a Farmer

Feature: It's Safer to Be a Cop Than a Farmer

from Drug War Chronicle, Issue #519, 1/18/08

With the exception of 2001, when the September 11 attacks caused a sharp spike in police deaths, last year was the deadliest for police in nearly two decades. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, 181 officers died in the line of duty last year, up from 147 in 2006.

But while law enforcement, aided and abetted by the mass media, was quick to emphasize the numbers, and especially a double-digit increase in the number of police killed by firearms, nearly half (82) of all officers killed died in traffic incidents. Eight dropped dead of heart attacks or heat stroke, seven more died of 9/11-related illnesses, five were blown up while serving in Iraq, three died in aircraft accidents, three died in other accidents, two fell to their deaths, two died in weather-related events, and one died of a wasp sting.

No officers were listed as having been killed by knives, clubs, or other non-firearm weapons. Some 64 officers were in fact killed by armed suspects -- up from 50 intentionally killed with firearms last year -- and another four died of accidental gunshot wounds.

"It serves the interest of law enforcement to portray the profession as dangerous," said Dr. Victor Kappeler, a professor of criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University. "It benefits them in terms of public support when negotiating for salaries and budgets. When the media reports on officers killed in the line of duty, people think of citizens attacking the police, but most of these deaths are accidents. Policing is just not one of the most dangerous occupations."

In fact, it's not even in the top ten. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it was much more dangerous to be an ocean fisherman, logger, structural steel worker, garbage worker, farmer, lineman, truck driver, farm worker, or construction worker than law enforcement officer. Fishermen were killed at the job at a rate of 118 per 100,000, while for police officers, that figure was only 18.2.

Even when it comes to lawmen gunned down by criminals, somewhat surprisingly, it's not drug dealers gunning down our police officers. Despite years of talk about dangerous, heavily armed drug dealers and the threat they pose to police, a Chronicle review of all police deaths in the US in 2007 found only a handful related to drug law enforcement. That's not an aberration; we reported similar numbers last year, and it is a pattern that holds true over the years.

Here are the five cases we could find where officers died enforcing (or because of) drug prohibition:

Tennessee Highway Patrol Trooper Calvin Jenks was shot and killed January 6, 2007, after he pulled over a pair of Texas teenagers with a car full of marijuana.

Toledo, Ohio, Police Detective Keith Dressel was shot and killed when he and another detective interrupted a drug deal on February 21, 2007. Dressel had been assigned to the Vice/Narcotics Bureau.

Dallas Police Senior Corporal Mark Timothy Nix was shot and killed March 23, 2007, while trying to apprehend a man wanted in a drug house murder.

Puerto Rico Police Department Agent Jose Fontanez-Correa was shot and killed May 22, 2007, while trying to arrest a suspect in a high narcotics trafficking area.

Rialto, California, Police Officer Sergio Carrera was shot and killed October 18, 2007, while serving a search warrant in an apartment building during a drug raid.

Of these five cases, three can be said to cases of officers being killed while directly enforcing the drug laws -- the two shot while trying to make drug busts and the one killed during a drug raid. The highway patrolman was ostensibly doing traffic law enforcement, and the Dallas police officer was trying to catch a killer.

Given that there were approximately 1.8 million drug arrests in 2006 and presumably a slightly higher number last year, we see that there is one police fatality for every 360,000 or so drug arrests.

"The media tend to portray law enforcement as far more dangerous than it really is," said Kappeler. "A typical TV cop sees more action in an hour than a real cop sees in an entire career. On average, you probably have to work 140 years in law enforcement before you would actually use deadly force, and many more years than that before it is used against you."

Despite all the talk from law enforcement about how it is up against heavily-armed drug dealers and thus needs to resort to paramilitarized SWAT-style policing in routine drug raids, only one police officer in the US died in a drug raid last year.

But still, the SWAT raids continue, and so do the fatalities, but it's the civilians who are dying. The most recent example came just two weeks ago, when a member of a Lima, Ohio, SWAT team executing a drug search warrant shot and killed 26-year-old Tarika Wilson and blew off the finger of the 14-month-old child she was carrying in her arms when she was killed.

"I don't think that's what that Ohio officer signed up for," sighed Jack Cole, a retired New Jersey narcotics detective who is now executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

But if we base our law enforcement tactics on myths about the dangers of policing instead of looking at the realities, that's what we will continue to get. Innocent civilians will continue to pay the price for overstated concerns about officer safety, and the war on drugs will exact even more casualties.