Crossing The Police Line

commentary posted 2016-07-26 - last updated 2016-07-28
Police line: do not cross

[W]e’ve also seen increasing threats against our police and a substantial rise in the number of officers killed in the line of duty – a very big rise.

The Police Line: Do Not Cross

In other occupations, that are bereft of the pompous militaristic parlance peculiar to the law enforcement occupation, and where staff members are usually known as "workers" not "officers", it would seem rather peculiar to use the term "killed in the line of duty" when discussing workplace fatalities. But in the warmongering society of the US, where police are viewed as soldiers defending the nation's streets, the first rule of political speech is that adequate genuflection to police is de rigueur (though grovelling is preferred).

And when police die in workplace violence, it is viewed as the killing of a soldier of the law: legicide. It is the killing of a symbol of power and authority - i.e. an act of insurrection. Therefore it is customary in mainstream US discourse for the rhetoric to become unhinged, with little or no trace of rationality - much less critical analysis - seeping in, as politicos and pundits of all stripes wrap themselves in flag-draped coffins. Critical analysis of the official line on police fatalities and lethal risk lies in a domain beyond the bounds of mainstream discourse: somewhere out on the lunatic fringe. And those bounds must never be crossed - not by political players nor by media. And that's the way it was following the fatal shootings of police in Oakland and Pittsburg in 2009, and again after the recent fatal shootings of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

Thanks to Donald Trump

But now comes a twist: it is a presidential election year. And there is an unconventional candidate whose campaign has been riding high on waves of controversial statements. So even conventional discourse is now being scrutinized when it falls from the lips of the unconventional candidate.

Reporting on a July 11 speech in Virginia by Donald Trump (after Dallas, but before Baton Rouge shootings), picked up that Trump was using police workplace homicide data in making a claim about the broader circumstance of police workplace fatalities: Donald Trump says there has been “a substantial rise in the number of officers killed in the line of duty — a very big rise.” He’s right, to a point. There has been an increase in firearms-related deaths in the last six months compared to a year ago.

But the number of fatalities from all causes, not just firearms, is largely unchanged from a year ago, and has substantially declined in recent years.

Actually, is soft-pedalling Trump's lie: he is not "right, to a point", he is wrong - dead wrong. If he is consistent in using "killed in the line of duty" to only mean "killed by firearms in the line of duty", then he must consistently exclude police killed by bombs, vehicles, knives, or any other weapon from those "killed in the line of duty". As a result, he then must claim that the eight law enforcement agents killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 72 law enforcement agents killed on Sep. 11 2001 were not "killed in the line of duty". But no US politician would dare make such a claim about those who are eulogized and honored - not even the self-proclaimed "rebel" Donald Trump. So it must be true that the Trump campaign is redefining "killed in the line of duty" for this case only, i.e. to misuse statistics in order to deliberately misrepresent the facts. also pointed out that both total fatalities and firearms deaths of police must be viewed in a long-term context: As for longer-term trends, the number of law enforcement fatalities has declined substantially in recent years. As we said earlier, there has been a 17 percent decline in law enforcement fatalities in the last seven years during the Obama administration compared with the previous seven years, from 2002 to 2008.

In fact, the 109 total law enforcement fatalities in 2013 was the fewest since 1956...As for the number of law enforcement officers shot and killed, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund said such fatal shootings are on the decline.

It's no news that the Trump campaign plays fast and loose with facts. The real news here is that one of the standard myths regarding the lethal risk of policing was finally publicly debunked by a pundit.

Crossed again

Of course, no army of fact-checkers slows Trump, as his campaign, like the fright-wingers at Fox, are acutely aware: it's not about facts, it's about ratings. As in the world of pro wrestling, the Trump campaign broadcasts its own peculiar world of fictional combat that its fans crave for - loudly promoted in a carnival of crass.

So it should come as no surprise that ten days later, in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, the Trump campaign dragged out the same lie (this time embellished with numbers), as reported in AP FACT CHECK: Trump resurfaces debunked claims in speech :

TRUMP: "The number of police officers killed in the line of duty has risen by almost 50 percent compared to this point last year."

Surprisingly, AP, normally a loyal mouthpiece for The Police Line, readily debunks the myth that police struggle under enormous lethal threats: THE FACTS: Not according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which tracks police fatalities daily. The group found that the number of police officers who died as of July 20 is up just slightly this year, at 67, compared with 62 through the same period last year. That includes deaths in the line of duty from all causes, including traffic fatalities.

It is true that there has been a spike in police deaths from intentional shootings, 32 this year compared with 18 last year, largely attributable to the recent mass shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge. But that was not his claim.

And overall, police are statistically safer on America's streets now than at any time in recent decades.

To its credit, the AP fact check does not excuse Trump's claim that police fatalities have sharply risen - when actually only police shooting deaths have climbed - as "right, to a point", but instead frankly points out that the facts are not as he claimed.

But the AP fact check left one mystery unresolved: if the actual rise in police fatalities was only from 62 to 67 (8%) and the rise in fatal shootings was from 18 to 32 (78%), how did Trump figure a rise of "almost 50 percent compared to this point last year"?

Apparently, the Trump campaign was using outdated numbers, as the analysis of his July 11 speech revealed: The Trump campaign, which now provides speeches with footnotes, cited a USA Today article that reported a 44 percent increase in officers shot and killed so far this year compared with a year ago. The article, which was based on data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, said there had been 26 officers shot and killed from Jan. 1 to July 9 compared with 18 for that same time period a year ago. That included the five officers killed in Dallas.

So it seems that Trump was using the 44% increase in police shot and killed when he claimed in his acceptance speech that police fatalities had risen almost 50% (and it should be mentioned that rounding 44% up to 50% is playing pretty loose with numbers). But by that time, three more law enforcement agents had been shot in Baton Rouge, plus two in a Michigan court room, and one more in a Kansas auto stop, bringing the number shot and killed to 32 - a rise of almost 80%, not 50%. Ironically, had the Trump campaign updated the numbers it could have presented an even more persuasive misrepresentation of "shot and killed in the line of duty" as "killed in the line of duty".

But what does it matter anyway? What do facts matter to Trump fans, while they're being entertained by his show of righteous indignation? The content is irrelevant, as long as it is punctuated by his punchline: "Believe me, believe me". The welcome news is that The Police Line has been crossed. Only time will tell us if this trickle of rationality will grow into a rigorous critique of both the rhetoric surrounding law enforcement and the consequences of that rhetoric.