Friday, September 15, 2006
BUSTING THE "COPS HAVE A DANGEROUS JOB" MYTH
By Marie De Santis, Women's Justice Center
Everyday police are out there risking their lives for you and me. Or are they really? And what urgent difference does it make to you, your sisters, your daughters, and friends?
Before reading any further, try this quick test. Rank the following six occupations according to their rate of on-the-job fatalities, starting from the most dangerous to the least dangerous: air pilot, police officer, truck driver, electrician, construction laborer, gardener (non-farm). Chances are, if you've ever watched TV, or listened to cops defend their conduct, or read newspaper editorials supporting the police, or heard broadcasts of the funeral orations in memory of a slain officer, or just plain lived on the planet, chances are you flunked the test royally.
Here is the correct ranking from the U.S. Department of Labor, along with a few other occupations to give you an idea of the range. (From U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Fatalities per 100,000, Year 1999.)
Commercial Fishermen 162
Timber Cutters 154
Air Pilots 65
Construction Laborers 37
Garbage Collectors 34
Truck Drivers 28
Gardeners (non farm) 11
So the real deal is this, police officers don't lay their lives on the line any more than the person who plants the petunias on your patio. The numbers vary some from year to year, but the ranking of fatality rates remains basically the same as you see it here.
It's said that you can't fool all the people all of the time, yet this highly exaggerated myth of the dangerousness of police work has come pretty close to doing just that. The entire American public has been bamboozled with this myth for a very long time. As you can see just from the abbreviated list of occupations above, many, many other workers, including many who work in public service, suffer far higher fatality rates than police.
And when, for example, the city gardener dies on the job serving you, there's no fanfare, no flags flown at half mast, no five foot flower monuments flown in from near and far. No motorcycle caravans of gardeners swarming into the funeral from seven neighboring states. No headlines at the top of the news for three days running. No city and state officials clamoring for a place to mourn at the casket.
What is it with the police? Their familiar refrains are known in every town and hamlet of the nation. "Our wives have to worry everyday whether of not we're going to come home at night." Doesn't the gardener's spouse have to worry just as much? "We never speak out against another cop, because we depend on each other for our lives." Don't gardeners depend on each other when rock walls shift, structures collapse, or machinery turns rogue? Of course they do, just as much, and as often, and as life-and-death, as the police.
But different from gardeners, police have immense powers over people, and too often can misuse that power to create myths to get more power. Here's a couple of first thoughts to start the debate as to why this myth of police dangerousness exists and how it harms our communities.
1. By cultivating a hyper-inflated myth of heros sacrificing their lives for you, police have created a shield of public veneration to defend against criticism of any misdeed. Who then can blame police for building arsenals against the citizens, for firing at first blink, for mafia-like codes of silence? Who then can refuse police funding requests for ever more militarized arms?
2. The myth of dangerousness keeps women out of policing, and keeps police power concentrated in the hands of men. The supposed danger of police work is one of the main reasons women give for not going into policing. Women lose out on a great job, and communities lose out on the exceptional skills women bring to the job, not the least of which is dramatically lower rates of excessive use of force, and the better communication skills that de-escalate violence and save lives.
3. The myth of police dangerousness again and again attracts the wrong kind of people to the job. A hyper male ego is the last thing that's needed at ground zero on the critical fault lines of society's problems. And it's the last thing that's needed to handle crimes of violence against women which accounts for about a third of all police calls.
4. The myth of the dangerousness of policing keeps police wives scared to death and under control. How do you get up the nerve to insist that the warrior hero who faces death around every corner do his share of scrubbing the bathroom floor?
5. Too many police officers believe this myth themselves, and reach for the gun at the first blink of an eye, and then later, all can be explained with the refrain, "Our lives are on the line."
Here's a couple other facts that should be taken into account. The majority of police on-the-job fatalities are not caused by bad guys shooting at the cops. The majority of police on-the-job fatalities are caused by vehicle accidents.
And maybe this next fact is most pertinent of all to the question of how, and why, and what difference it makes who society selects for its heros. Although the Department of Labor doesn't include motherhood as an occupation, other national studies show that childbearing in the U.S. has a fatality rate on a par with policing.
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Copyright Marie De Santis, Women's Justice Center, www.justicewomen.com