An alleged spree of cop-killings? All the data say otherwise

To hear Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway describe it, 2015 has become open season on police officers, ginned up by anti-cop “hate groups” and “domestic terrorists.”

”Law enforcement officers are being dehumanized,” Conway said in an angry statement released Tuesday. “Those inciting riots and committing murders are simply criminals and do not represent the majority of Americans. They are domestic terrorists with an agenda. Their message is that police lives don’t matter, which sure sounds like a hate group to me. … The disturbing murders of police officers are not isolated events and anyone promoting violence toward our law enforcement officers must be held accountable.”

With all due respect to the sheriff, who has devoted most of his adult life to law enforcement, much of that’s a crock.

Let’s deal first with the obvious: Of course those who murder police officers are criminals who must be held fully accountable. But let me also cite some numbers, gathered from a database compiled by the Officer Down Memorial Page, which honors law enforcement officers who have given their lives in the line of duty:

In 2014, 59 officers were killed on duty by firearms, assault with a vehicle or other form of assault. In 2005, the total was 70.

So far in 2015, the death toll is 35, well below the pace of last year, the pace of a decade ago, and the average pace of the last 10 years. According to ODMP, officer murders by firearms are down 26 percent, a trend absolutely inconsistent with some concerted campaign to target officers for assassination. (Other sources show a similar decline.)

Now, each and every one of those 35 deaths so far this year is a tragedy. These officers were killed trying to protect the rest of us, and they deserve to be honored. And every officer who puts on a badge and a uniform knows that the same fate may await them tomorrow. That too is a reality that cannot be ignored.

But that’s what makes allegations such as those leveled by Conway and other high-ranking police officials around the country so dangerous. Their claims are backed by no apparent evidence, but they risk creating a heightened and unjustified sense of danger among their own officers. To the degree it causes officers to overreact in a tense situation, it can have tragic consequences.

As we all know, this claim of rising “hatred” of police stems from a series of difficult cases over the last two years in which officers were alleged to have used excessive force, often against black suspects. In some cases the allegations have proved false or unsubstantiated. But in too many cases, video evidence has made it clear that officers acted unprofessionally and even criminally, suggesting that such cases may occur more often than we realized.

Conway is right: Nothing, not even the unjustified killing of a suspect or innocent person by a bad police officer, justifies retaliation against law enforcement in general.

But the opposite is also true. The tragic deaths of good officers should not be used to excuse or cloud the investigation of officers who abuse their authority or kill without cause. They are two entirely different phenomenons, and it is not “hatred” to demand that bad officers be held accountable.