Online post misleads on police deaths during drug war

On April 20, the unofficial stoner holiday 4/20, supporters of legal marijuana and opponents of the U.S. “war on drugs” took to the internet. The words accompanying one widely shared image say in part: “More American police officers died during prohibition of alcohol than any other time in history. 300 died in 1930 alone. After prohibition ended, police deaths didn’t reach 200 a year again until the year Nixon declared war on drugs.”

A quick Google search showed us the image has been making the rounds since at least 2015.

We wondered if the data actually support that message.

Marijuana and other drugs had been illegal in the United States for years before the federal government under President Richard Nixon launched what we now call the “war on drugs.” He called for harsher drug laws and millions of dollars in extra spending, and Congress complied.

Comparing Prohibition with the drug war is common in American culture. But is it also fair to compare police deaths during the two periods?

That’s a little iffy.

It's correct that 1930 was the deadliest year in U.S. history for police. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which tracks officer deaths going back to 1791, says 307 officers died in 1930. It's also correct that police deaths decreased sharply after Prohibition.

But the numbers behind the claim that "police deaths didn't reach 200 a year again until the year Nixon declared war on drugs" are a bit off.

Nixon began the war on drugs in 1971, but police deaths actually topped 200 the year before that, in 1970. And that wasn’t any sort of a spike. The number of deaths had been just below 200 all throughout the late 1960s.

And that’s not the only thing wrong with this claim.

The image clearly uses the violence associated with organized crime to make its point. However, not every officer who dies is killed in the line of duty by someone else. Many officers die from car crashes, illnesses and other causes. Yet the data this viral post cites on police deaths include all deaths of police officers each year – violent and non-violent, on-duty and off-duty.

In 2007, according to the memorial group, 202 officers died. According to FBI data, 57 of those were killed while on duty by a criminal.

That means nearly three-fourths of the deaths that year were not the kind of violent deaths this image is alluding to. And even while on duty that year, an officer was more likely to have been killed in an accident than by a criminal.

We focused on 2007 for a reason. In the past 36 years, only 2007 and 2001 (due to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks) have had more than 200 officer deaths.

As for the number of officers who die each year during the war on drugs, in reality that’s only happened 12 times, and only twice since 1981.

Nicholas Kristof wrote in 2015 that toddlers are killed by guns more often than on-duty police officers are, which PunditFact rated Mostly True.

And whatever the cause of officers’ deaths in a given period, the war on drugs still doesn’t compare to Prohibition, when for 14 years an average of 252 officers died every year. Since Prohibition ended more than 80 years ago, however, there have been more than 250 officer deaths only twice – in 1973 and 1974.

In fact, during most years from the 1990s until today, the number of officer deaths has been roughly the same as 100 years ago, when there were far fewer officers.

Our ruling

Police deaths have largely been on the decline for decades even as the drug war continues, and the number of officers has grown significantly. Since the image uses a semi-accurate statistic to make a misleading comparison, we rate this claim Mostly False.

“After prohibition ended, police deaths didn’t reach 200 a year again until the year Nixon declared war on drugs.”

— Viral image on Thursday, April 20th, 2017 in posts on social media