Dead CopsThe New York Times has reported on the sudden increase in law enforcement deaths despite decreasing crime. Up through 2010, roughly 50 officers died in the line of duty every year—not counting accidents. Last year, the number was 72. It all begs for an explanation, but The New York Times doesn't really provide one.

The article does provide the usual platitudes about how dangerous police work is. It quotes Sheriff Ray Foster saying, "In this law enforcement job, when you pin this badge on and go out on calls, when you leave home, you ainít got a promise that you will come back." This is true for everyone, of course: "When you go off to work at the teddy bear factory, when you leave home, you ain't got a promise that you will come back." As I've written before, law enforcement is not that dangerous a job and cops should stop whining about how much risk they face. When a convenience store clerk is killed during a robbery, he doesn't get a parade. Given that law enforcement officers do some bad, little good, and a whole lot of nothing, I just don't see why we continue to venerate them.

The Times does provide three potential reasons for the rise in officer fatalities: more invasive procedures, the tough economy, and fewer cops on the street. I only have data on the number of cops on the street through 2009, so I can't speak to that cause. However, it seems clear that there hasn't been that big a change. There has been a tough economy since 2008, and we haven't seen a rise in officer fatalities until now. As for the invasive procedures, the article says:

Some law enforcement officials believe that techniques pioneered by the New York Police Department over the past two decades and adopted by other departments may have put officers at greater risk by encouraging them to conduct more street stops and to seek out and confront suspects who seem likely to be armed. In New York and elsewhere, police officials moved more officers into crime-ridden areas.

I don't find this terribly compelling, but there is probably at least a little truth to it. When you pat down every black guy walking down the street, you better expect some push back.

The number of officer fatalities last year is so unusual that it is, just based upon the statistics, not random. However, in the first 3 months of this year, officer fatalities have dropped. This makes me think there is a problem with how fatalities are counted. It would only take single error—an agency reporting 20 instead of 2. Or it could be a statistical glitch because of some big event, like a shoot out that ended in a lot of death. Sheriff Foster lost two officers in a shoot out in Buchanan County, VA where the population is only 24,000.

The main thing to remember is that this is no big deal. The article is just another example of the "Cops Have it Hard" genre of newspaper articles. There were 72 officer deaths last year. This is out of a total of over 700,000 officers (this does not include support staff). That means that a cop has a 0.01% chance of dying in a given year. That means he has about 0.25% chance of dying on the job in his whole career. It isn't surprising that the cops would want to puff themselves up. But why does the rest of the society follow along?