In the aftermath of the mass shooting of a dozen police officers in Dallas this week, some conservatives rushed to lay blame for the incident at the feet of the Obama administration.
Former Republican congressman Joe Walsh said on Twitter that “Obama’s words & [Black Lives Matter]’s deeds have gotten cops killed.” Texas congressman Roger Williams said that “the spread of misinformation and constant instigation by prominent leaders, including our President,” contributed to the killings. Iowa congressman Steve King said the shooting had “roots” in the “anti-white/cop events illuminated by Obama.”
These statements are part of a broader narrative of a so-called “war on cops” carried out by the Obama administration and/or the Black Lives Matter movement, depending on who you ask. It’s certainly true that some shooters of police, like the Dallas attacker, appear to be motivated by a hatred of white police officers or a twisted urge to seek revenge for police shootings of black Americans. But the simplistic and inflammatory notion of a “war on cops” is completely undercut by one fundamental datapoint: intentional attacks on police officers are at historically low levels under President Obama.
Data from the Officers Down Memorial Page, which tracks law enforcement officer fatalities in real time, illustrates the point. During the Reagan years, for instance, an average of 101 police officers were intentionally killed each year. Under George H.W. Bush that number fell to 90. It fell further, to 81 deaths per year, under Clinton, and to 72 deaths per year under George W. Bush.
Under Obama, the average number of police intentionally killed each year has fallen to its lowest level yet — an average of 62 deaths annually through 2015. If you include the 2016 police officer shootings year-to-date and project it out to a full year, that average of 62 deaths doesn’t change.
It’s worth pointing out that in 2016, year-to-date officer fatalities via shooting only are up 44 percent over last year, according to the numbers compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Fund. But that’s partially an illustration of how sensitive these numbers are to individual incidents: if you set the Dallas shootings aside, the year-over-year increase is only 17 percent. And as Eugene Volokh points out, the 2016 numbers are roughly on par with the numbers for the past 10 years.
These figures in the chart above include all incidents in which a suspect intended to kill a police officer — shootings, stabbings, assaults, bombings, and vehicular assaults. They exclude things like accidental shootings, job-related illnesses and traffic accidents. If you were to narrow it down to just shootings, the overall trend would be roughly the same: from 80 deaths annually under Reagan to 48 annually under Obama. Again, factoring in the 2016 shooting numbers, including Dallas, has a negligible effect on the average under Obama.
These falling fatality numbers aren’t simply a function of better medical care for injured officers: overall assaults on officers are down too. In 1988, the last year of the Reagan administration, there were 15.9 assaults for every 100 sworn law enforcement officers according to the FBI. In 2000, at the end of the Clinton administration, there were 12.7 assaults for every 100 officers. By the end of the Bush administration that number fell further to 11.3. Under Obama in 2014, the most recent year for which the FBI has data, that number further fell to 9.0.
One area where the numbers are a little murkier is ambush attacks like the Dallas shooting, where killing police officers is the sole intent of the crime. These are generally very rare, with the number of officers dying in these attacks each year in the single or double digits. But they have become slightly more common: during George H.W. Bush’s administration (the first administration for which the FBI provides complete data) roughly eight officers died in ambush attacks each year. That rose to nine under Clinton, and 10 per year under George W. Bush and Obama (through 2014).
The small numbers here make these attacks no less tragic — one dead police officer is too many, regardless of the cause. But they have to be understood in the context of a striking overall improvement in officer safety.
It’s tempting to place credit or blame for these figures with whichever president happened to be in charge at the time, as many conservatives have done in recent days. But in reality police officer safety is much more closely connected to broader social trends than to who happens to be sitting in the White House.
Since the early 1990s, for instance, violent crime has plummeted. Motor vehicles have become much safer. States have passed laws making the roadways safer for police. All of these factors have contributed to the dramatic drop on police fatality rates, from all causes, that we’ve seen over the past few decades.
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