After the events in Dallas and Baton Rouge over the past few weeks, some people have become convinced that an unadulterated aggression has been unleashed on law enforcement officers in the US. Outlets such as conservative news website Breitbart, as well as some of the far-right’s favorite demagogues, have declared that there is a “war on cops.” This conversation has also dominated much of the rhetoric throughout the Republican National Convention this week. Unsurprisingly, those speechifying on the need to protect law enforcement officers often place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the White House.
However, much like the claims of a supposedly more unsafe America that have circulated throughout the RNC, the idea that there is a swelling “war on police” buckles under available data. In examining the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund’s fatality numbers—which combine federal, local, and correctional officers—the total deaths of law enforcement officers over the past few years are at their lowest figures since the Eisenhower administration:
Even with the horrific shootings over the past month, which have increased total police fatalities to 67 so far this year, 2016 is still on pace to see fewer law enforcement deaths than the past two years, and also the second-lowest total since 1959. The only year with fewer fatalities? 2013.
And when this data is broken down by cause, 2016’s projected total of 58 shooting-related deaths will still come in discernibly less than the 2010-11 totals. While there has been a notable rise from the past few years, it is still only about one-third of the high point we saw in 1975.
But it’s not simply that there have been fewer overall law enforcement fatalities under the Obama administration than at any point since Eisenhower. Rates of annual law enforcement fatalities since 2013 (as a portion of the broader American population) have come in lower than any stretch since 1900:
For instance, in 2015, the rate of law enforcement fatalities per million US citizens stood at 0.38—a slight uptick from the rate of 0.34 fatalities per million Americans seen in 2013, but still the second-lowest pace since at least 1900. And if current trends hold, 2016 will see an improvement on last year’s numbers.
While the past few years have indeed crept upward, the putative spike pales in comparison to Prohibition-era figures, which topped out in 1930 with a rate of 2.47 fatalities per million Americans. And under Richard Nixon, that consummate “law and order” candidate, 1.31 law enforcement officers were killed per million Americans in his final year in office.
To be fair, the US has seen a steady drop-off in police deaths since the 1974 peak under Nixon, with the notable exception of 9/11. The sag in law enforcement fatalities has mirrored not only the broader decrease in the number of Americans who own guns, but also the decades-long reduction in violent crime across the country. Medical advancements and improved safety gear for law enforcement officers have also played a role.
The police deaths in Dallas and Baton Rouge are, of course, tragic, and no statistics can mitigate the impact of those lives lost. But these events—and the push to politicize them—shouldn’t obscure the fact that the rate of law enforcement fatalities over the past few years, as a portion of the US population, hasn’t been this low since at least the 19th century.
America has experienced a “war on police,” yes—but it came during the days of Hoover and Nixon, not the current administration.