The Huffington Post‘s Ryan J. Reilly reported last week that two officers were shot during a protest in Ferguson, Missouri. The gathering in question was spurred by news of Thomas Jackson’s resignation as police chief. Jackson quit after the Justice Department released a report revealing racial biases, revenue-driven policies and the criminalization of Ferguson citizens writ large within the Ferguson Police Department.
Interestingly, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar cites the shooting as an example of an “ambush.” There has also been talk about the general increase in law enforcement deaths from 2013 to 2014, in particular the rise of ambushes and firearm related deaths.
The FBI defines ambushes as either premeditated or unprovoked, with the former defined as someone consciously trying to lure an officer into a dangerous situation. The unprovoked scenario most often plays out in traffic stops.
One statistic missing from this picture is the number of citizens gunned down by police officers per year. That’s largely because that statistic relies on the willingness of police departments to hold themselves accountable and self-report these incidents. It falls onto organizations like the nonprofit Fatal Encounters to try and document how widespread the occurrence of “death by police officer” is.
According to CNN, Fatal Encounters listed 1,010 deaths at the hands of police officers in 2013 and 1,134 in 2014. The Facebook page Killed by Police estimates that at least 2,088 have been killed since they started counting the deaths on May 1, 2013.
While the data from these sources may be rough, it hardly seems like police are the ones in danger.
Even if those statistics weren’t true it still wouldn’t be the case that cops are more likely than ever to be in danger. As Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, writes, “Policing has been getting safer for 20 years. In terms of raw number of deaths, 2013 was the safest year for cops since World War II.”
Balko adds that if we look at the rate of deaths for 2013 we can see that it was one of the safest years for cops in over a century. And even with a projected increase for 2014, it would still stand as the second safest year for police.
If all of this is true, why are police so concerned about ambushes?
One hypothesis is that cops are conforming in their behavior to a version of the popular saying about homophobes: Men who are scared that gay men will treat them as they treat women. Except here, it’s police officers who are worried that we will start treating them like they treat us. That fear is not only warranted; it should be kept in mind by those who put on the uniform.
People living in Ferguson are often criminalized by police and thus they are perhaps more likely than most to start treating the cops as the cops treat them. So seeing events like this happen in Ferguson shouldn’t come as any surprise. This is especially true given how widespread this phenomenon of over-criminalization in Ferguson is. Nathan Robinson at Huffington Post writes, “In 2013, 32,975 offenses had associated warrants, so that there were 1.5 offenses for every city resident. That means that the city of Ferguson quite literally has more crimes than people.”
It’s safe to say that if you keep treating people like criminals, it’s only a matter of time until they start acting like criminals. Maybe this makes the cops scared of us? If so, good. Police being afraid of us would likely be an improvement over us being scared of them.