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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

How Dangerous Is Police Work? (and other police misconduct statistics)

I received an email today asking, as many do, whether there are any hard statistics on police related violence and color of law abuses. Unfortunately, as I have to tell many people, there aren't any easy ways to get this kind of information for a number of reasons.

However, I've decided to compile some of the statistics I have been able to gather for Seattle and nationwide in my own ongoing research into how pervasive police misconduct really is, what the trends might indicate, and whether there are any correlations between crime rates and excessive uses of force. If statistics bore you, don't worry, I made pretty graphs too.

Just a week or so ago I posted some statistics about how complaints of excessive use of force by Seattle Police officers compare to alleged incidents of assault on an officer. I did this to get an idea of whether or not the commonly used excuse for excessive force, being that police work is dangerous so officers need to use physical force even when none is used against them, really had any justification by the numbers.

Number of alleged incidents of assault on an officer, alleged injuries to officers from assaults, and excessive use of force complaints in Seattle

As you can see above, while complaints of excessive force have generally been trending upwards, the allegations of assault on an officer and any corresponding claims of injuries by officers stemming from said allegation have been on a clear decline. In fact, allegations of assault on an officer fell by over 200 and injury rates have more than halved since the year 2000 while complaints of excessive force have increased over the same period. This would seem to indicate that police aggressiveness is not a defensive response to a more violent populous.

Some might argue that the job of a policeman is still more dangerous than other jobs if you look outside of Seattle. Well, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released their report on occupational fatalities for 2007 (on 08/20/2008) and I decided to take a look to see how dangerous police work was on a national scale as another comparison point to see if this excuse for more aggressive use of force by police was valid on a national scale.

According to the BLS Occupational Fatalities press release, the top four most dangerous occupations in terms of deaths per worker are:

1. Fishing and Fishery Workers (111.8 per 100,000)
2. Logging Workers (86.4 per 100,000)
3. Aircraft Pilots and Flight Engineers (66.7 per 100,000)
4. Structural Iron and Steel Workers (45.5 per 100,000)

To make a comparison I calculated the fatality rate for law enforcement officers which comes in around 20.2 per 100,000 based on 2007 employment level statistics, nearly 6 times safer than working as fisherman and twice as safe as working in a steel mill.

Further into the depths of the report they provide are the actual number of deaths per profession, of which the top 10 appear to be:
Deaths by Occupation for 2007

So, even by counting the number of deaths instead of the per capita death rates it appears as though law enforcement ranks a bit on the safer side when compared to several other occupations. Of course, one could try to argue that it's still more dangerous in terms of having to worry about being shot at on a daily basis, right?

Well... let's break it down to see what the homicide rates on the job might be:

Job site deaths sorted by number of homicides

In this comparison we see that Law Enforcement homicide rates are at 37% of the total fatality rate for the occupation, making it the third most likely occupation in which a person might be murdered, but only fourth in the total number of murder victims overall. This might seem to indicate that it's pretty dangerous, but lets do some further comparisons...

The per capita murder rate for law enforcement officers in the US in 2007 was 8.07 per 100,000
The per capita accidental death rate for the United States in 2006 was 38.1 per 100,000
For 2007 there were 43 cities in the US where the per capita murder rate was higher than 8.07 per 100,000
The 2007 per capita murder rate in the worst city of the US (Detroit) is 47.3 per 100,000
The 2006 per capita murder rate in Seattle was 5.1 per 100,000

So, on average, it's more dangerous for a civilian to walk in some US cities than it is to work as a police officer in the US. In fact, in 2007, it appears as though it was more dangerous to be a civilian in Seattle than it was to be a police officer as the per capita murder rate was 5.1 per 100,000 but the law enforcement murder rate was 0 per 1,000.

How does Seattle stack up for use of force complaints?

Per the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in 2002 the national average for use of force complaints against officers in medium to large municipal police departments was around 9.5 per every 100 officers. In Seattle, for 2007, the rate was 10.3 per 100.

Nationally, use of force complaints are sustained in approximately 8% of cases, in Seattle complaints for 2007 were sustained in a suspiciously low 3.48% whereas previously they stayed near the national average sustained rate, indicating a problem in the accountability process.

Compared to other cities of similar size?
By using the annual reports that some cities issue, the following comparisons could be made.

Pop Est 582,454: PD Size 1,200
2007 Use Of Force Complaints: 124 (10.3 per 100)

San Jose:
Pop Est 929,936: PD Size 1,400
2007 Use Of Force Complaints: 117 (8.4 per 100)

Washington DC:
Pop Est 581,530: PD Size 3,800
2007 Use Of Force Complaints: 101 (2.7 per 100)

San Fransisco:
Pop Est 744,041: PD Size 2,100
2007 Use Of Force Complaints: 186 (8.9 per 100)

Why are Seattle's numbers so different?

There is an distrurbing trend developing if you take the time to compare monthly accountability reports in the city of Seattle to each previous year. Previously, a vast majority of complaints in Seattle were processed through the civilian led Office of Professional Accountability which would investigate roughly 90% of complaints and refer 10% of complaints to administrative officers for a discretionary finding which didn't involve an investigation. This changed towards mid 2007 after a change in OPA management, as seen below:

OPA Investigation vs Administrative Discretionary Findings 2005-2008

Which led to an increase in the number of exonerations, as seen below:
Sustained/Unsustained Findings From 2005 to 2008

So, clearly there is a problem with police misconduct and use of force within Seattle that is not being addressed by Seattle's system of accountability and officer discipline to this day. In fact, the problem appears to be getting worse and it's not because police officers are in any real or inordinate danger while working on the streets of this city.

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