At yesterday’s swearing in ceremony for beleaguered attorney general pick Jeff Sessions, President Trump signed three executive orders regarding law enforcement. One reiterated standing policy against international criminal cartels; another reinforced Trump and Sessions’s inaccurate representations of crime rate trends; and the third declared a new focus on preventing violence against law enforcement officials.
While effectively without substance, the political messaging of that third order is clear: violence against American law enforcement officials is endemic, and, as part of his commitment to restoring law and order, Trump will end it. But it’s simply not true.
In fact, as eminent criminologist Franklin Zimring shows in When Police Kill, the risk of a uniformed police officer being killed by assault has dropped by more than 70 percent since the mid-1970s. And this leads in turn to one of the most important questions facing criminal justice today: why has this enormous drop in police deaths not been accompanied by commensurate reductions in killings by police? If imminent threat to their person is justification for application of lethal force by police, and that threat has been vastly reduced, shouldn’t we expect to see a similar reduction in police use of lethal force?
The reasons for the discrepancy are many and complicated, ranging from outdated police tactics to the risk-reward calculus of local agencies, but one thing Zimring makes abundantly clear is the threat of handguns. Part of the reason why American police kill civilians at rates so far surpassing all other ostensibly peaceful and developed nations is that there are so many more guns in America; more guns equals increased threat to police equals increased use of police force.
From When Police Kill:
Many of the social and cultural circumstances of life in the United States contribute somewhat to a rate of killings by police that is so distinctively high that it represents a difference in kind rather than degree. But as we have seen, one characteristic of American society plays a dominant role in provoking the use of lethal force by police and all but guarantees that rates of killing by police will remain much higher in the United States than elsewhere for the foreseeable future. The singular phenomenon that provokes extraordinary rates of police use of lethal force is the proliferation of civilian ownership and use of upward of 60 million handguns. Firearms of all types are the single most frequently used weapon that threatens the life of uniformed police officers, but the handgun is a special danger in the public places where most police patrol because these are guns that are easy to conceal and carry. And the threat that concealed guns can be used is the single reason that the risk of death of police from on-duty assaults is so many times higher in the United States than elsewhere in the developed world.
The statistical trends in fatal attacks against police officers are the classic good news/bad news anecdote: the good news is that the risk of death from attack while on duty has declined about 70 percent in the four decades after 1976 for officers in uniform, from twenty-eight per 100,000 per year to seven per 100,000 per year. The bad news is that even with these dramatic reductions in death risk, the risk of death from assault for an officer on duty is very much greater than in other developed countries.
Careful evaluation of different police tactics in confrontations and improvements in vests and other protective gear can continue the long-range improvement in risk reduction for all police. But the prospects of any substantial reduction in civilian handgun ownership and use are not good for any time in the middle-range future. So the threat to police of concealed guns will continue at a magnitude much higher than in other developed nations. And that in turn will continue to provoke use of lethal force by American police at levels much higher than is common in other developed nations.
President Trump’s “Executive Order on Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers” states the administration’s intention to “develop strategies, in a process led by the Department of Justice and within the boundaries of the Constitution and existing Federal laws, to further enhance the protection and safety of Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.” It seems that the logical place to start would be gun control.