David R. Henderson  

The Brooklyn Cop Killings: A Numerate Analysis

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I'll put aside the irony that many people on the right are borrowing a page that many on the left use on other issues by blaming a climate of opinion for the two Brooklyn cop murders. My own view is that the person you should blame for the murders is, um, the murderer. Jesse Walker of Reason has handled that issue quite well here.

But I want to address an issue of numeracy. The New York Post quotes retired policeman Vernon Geberth as saying that murders of two New York policemen "brought me back to the days of the 1970s when cops were routinely being assassinated.'' Yes, he used that word "assassinated." My guess is because it sounds more serious and scary than "murdered." Either way, you're dead.

I'll address two questions: (1) Is the amping up of the threat scenario really justified? (2) Just how dangerous is it to be a policeman?

On (1), the evidence that we have says that it is not. A lone gunman who had murdered his ex-girlfriend decided to murder two policemen. It doesn't sound like part of an organized plot or a broader social movement. It's true that many people have expressed their upset about policemen. But that's a far cry from going out and murdering them.

On (2), it turns out that being a policeman is not as risky as you might think. Take New York city as a starting point. Ed Krayewski writes:

Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu are the first NYPD officers killed in the line of duty since 2011.

That means that we've effectively had 3 years with zero murders of New York policemen. You might argue that we have a small sample size. No, we have few murders. The sample--actually, the population--of New York policemen is huge. According to the New York city government's web site, "The NYPD's current uniformed strength is approximately 34,500." So that's about 100,000 man-years of risk, and during that time 2 of them were murdered.

In The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, in an article titled "Risk and Safety," authors Aaron Wildavsky (deceased) and Adam Wildavsky have a table showing the fatality rates in various occupations. Check Table 2. Based on fatality data alone, being a policeman is seven times as risky as working in manufacturing. But it's about 70% as risky as being a farmer and only 17% as risky as being a lumberjack.

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Ricardo writes:

I could be wrong, but my guess is that "assassinated" connotes "killed for the office you hold, rather than for who you actually are."

Methinks writes:

Usually "assassination" refers to killing someone famous for political reasons. I suppose if the shooter's ranting is to be believed, it may be correct to call the murder of these two cops an assassination, but labeling the murder of cops in the 1970's "assassinations" is a big stretch. A very big stretch.

New York was a much more violent place back then and cops were killed in shoot-outs with people they were approaching. Nobody was roaming the streets in an organized effort to kill policemen. In a year when 7 cops were killed an a couple of dozen were wounded in the line of duty, a newspaper headline asked if there was a "war against cops". A wee bit of an exaggeration, I'd say. I'm sure the NYPD is not above whipping up hysteria, though.

Andrew_FL writes:
It's true that many people have expressed their upset about policemen.

Crowds chanting for cops to be dead, is not merely expressing ""upset." It is, in fact, "a broader social movement" that literally calls for cops to be killed.

That being said, just how broad said movement is, and how serious their desire for dead cops actually is, is something one can legitimately question. so far it appears that the number of people actually willing to go out and kill cops, specifically as a part of this movement, is one. Let's hope it stays that way.

Zeke writes:

Why do we presume the protestors wanted vigilante (or discriminate) killing? Maybe they wanted capital punishment for the murder of Garner?

JKB writes:

As mentioned above, the political nature of the killings is what makes them an assassination. The victims importance may either be personal, professional or due to their office.

Yes, the murderer is the one specifically responsible, but when those in positions of power do not denounce calls for violence against police or others, then they give their tacit approval to the idea. And like it or not, there are a lot of people who only refrain from violent crimes because it is not only illegal, but socially unacceptable. By making a criminal idea seem palatable, those inclined may feel the restraints have been released.

Anyone who knows about leadership knows that you must always hold the line. That even silence in the face of calls or actions toward violating the rules will cause let slip their restraint.

And in the 1970s, NYPD cops were assassinated by radical political groups such as the Black Panthers and the so-called antiwar groups. But what is mostly meant is that the common restraint of "don't kill cops" (then uniform and badge do a lot to keep cops safe) had been overcome with police not only directly targeted but also more political and mercenary criminals lost their reluctance to do violence to police responding to routine crimes.

assassinate |əˈsasəˌnāt| verb murder (an important person) in a surprise attack for political or religious reasons.
JKB writes:


Then the protesters were confused about the law and NYC social consciousness. Most probably protested to have the death penalty removed from NY law.

But even if the officer(s) was criminally culpable for the death of Garner, there was no evidence intent or premeditation so the death penalty would never have been on the table.

Bostonian writes:

"I'll put aside the irony that many people on the right are borrowing a page that many on the left use on other issues by blaming a climate of opinion for the two Brooklyn cop murders."

When the message is spread that police are wantonly killing unarmed black men, by the media and by racial arsonists like Al Sharpton, it is predictable that some blacks will conclude that killing police is justifiable revenge. The killer himself cited the deaths of Brown and Garner to justify his acts. Henderson is ignoring the facts of this case.

Nobody was roaming the streets in an organized effort to kill policemen.

I'm surprised that the usually astute Methinks believes that. There were many leftist radicals who did just that, or like Barack and Michelle Obama's friends and neighbors, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, planted bombs in police stations.

The San Francisco police clearly believe that Ayers and Dohrn were responsible for one such in 1970.

Andrew_FL writes:

@Zeke-Are we supposed to applaud a lynch mob for wanting the legitimacy of the state attached to their acts?

Forgive me for thinking it's immaterial whether you want some punk to kill someone, or some licensed executioner on government payroll to do it instead. "Either way, you're dead."

Sultan Touma writes:

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methinks writes:

Patrick R. Sullivan,

Thank you for the compliment. I could be argued out of that position, but it seems to me that it's hyperbole to call what happened in the '70's a war against cops. The incidents of targeted killings were few and police stations were not regularly bombed or even targeted.

Stats on how often women are killed are trotted to claim a "war on women". Every police killing is now part of a "war on cops". Killing a black guy is a "war on black men". Will every school shooting become part of a "war on school children"?

The BLA seems to have been specifically targeting police, but a cop was still much more likely to die or get injured in the normal line of duty than at the hands of an assassin. The system is so skewed in favour of the cops that I'm reticent to give a militarized police force with wish lists of things they want to seize from people a pass on being even more aggressive in the name of protecting themselves from the exceedingly small risk of "assassins".

Kendall writes:

I am not sure you can judge how dangerous an activity is by it's fatality rate. I would assume handling deadly contagions would be considered dangerous but I suspect actual deaths rarely occur because of the precautions they take because the activity is dangerous. In the same way, the training and procedures police use may allow them to do a dangerous job in a safe manner. I know doing live fires was considered a dangerous activity when I was in the military but we did them safely because we followed our training.

Dain writes:

Tea Partiers were by and large matronly and middle-aged folks bloviating from lawn chairs in small and mid-sized cities. The Brown/Garner protesters are smashing windows and blocking traffic in major coastal cities.

Alleged links between protest and violence is far more compelling in the latter case than in the former. Yes, it's not actionable in a legal sense, but to equate the two strikes me as disingenuous.

I live in Oakland. I've seen it up close.

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