Statistically, law enforcement doesn’t make the top 10 most dangerous jobs in the United States – at least as presented by the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries’ 2019 numbers.
Nope, fishing and hunting workers, loggers, aircraft pilots, and even roofers top that list before a cop in a uniform, working a beat.
While the roofers have us beat, there is a mental and emotional cost to plying this trade.
I’m not about to sit here and tell you I know what it takes to work the other jobs that come well before law enforcement in terms of immediate danger.
While I’ve dabbled in a few of those trades, I’d never consider myself a pro, and the risks are very real.
But one element of my trade that sometimes lacks in others is…people.
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The Dangers of People
Loggers face dropping trees while roofers and structural ironworkers fear the ground. Pilots, well, that danger is pretty obvious.
With perhaps a nod to fishing and hunting workers, people are the main risk law enforcement face.
Cops deal day in and day out with people…and unpredictable ones at that.
Yes, other professions navigate fellow humans as well. We’re not the only ones, but when it comes to holding folks accountable or helping someone out, things can change.
Here’s the thing: the vast majority of the people we deal with daily mean us no harm whatsoever and would likely never do anything to harm us—but how do we know that?
Ever have a cop pull up on your traffic stop and make you feel like you committed the crime of the century?
Maybe they have their hand on their gun, moving and speaking like you are suddenly the titular characters in a High Noon scenario from some old western.
But what’s difficult to say is if this cop’s behavior is overreacting, underreacting, or just about right.
You see, you don’t know what call they recently came from or the last traffic stop they conducted where something went terribly wrong.
I stand firmly on a common belief about most law enforcement officers working today.
- They are generally good people.
- They are trying to do good work.
That said, work environment plays a pretty big role in how officers are shaped by their various experiences.
In the academy, I learned the modern police officer can face a number of penalties for misconduct of various levels.
They can be disciplined within their agency, terminated, have their POST certification revoked by the ruling board, sued civilly, and/or charged criminally.
Actually, in some pretty serious cases, almost all of these things happen simultaneously.
Add on top of this add the evolution of social media, and a cop can experience worldwide infamy in a matter of seconds.
Us vs. Them
Here are some of the realities that come to play in these situations.
Please understand, there is almost always more information on a given situation in law enforcement than you are exposed to at first blush.
A snippet on Instagram or the evening news may look really bad, but it is often presented without context.
If perception is reality, context might be the lens we look through to judge things.
There are usually many more minutes of video, reports, witness statements, and other evidence you aren’t privy to at the time.
The 80/20 rule or Pareto Principle has been used to describe a great many things over the years.
In law enforcement, it can typically be applied to our clientele.
Often, it feels like we deal with 20% of the population about 80% of the time. Please understand, this is not a good thing.
When you swim in the dregs of society and see the damage they cause, it tends to shape you. Some might even say it warps you.
Think about dealing with a drunken, loud-mouthed, wife beater, time after time. How would you feel about investigating a prolific pedophile who was not only sexually abusing several victims but creating child pornography with them as well?
These are midline interactions, things that happen frequently enough you don’t forget. They aren’t the least and certainly aren’t the worst.
Think about some ultimate encounter where someone either wants to die, or they want you to die.
The badge, uniform, the reflective sticker on the side of your car mean you are available 24/7 for these types of run-ins. Unfortunately, even if you do everything right, you can still be killed or permanently injured.
Officer Samuel Flowers of the Oklahoma City Police Department responded to an emergent (lights and sirens) call on May 1, 2021, when a car struck his patrol vehicle.
The driver bent on self-destruction, continued to ram the officer’s car until he caused both to crash. He then exited his vehicle and walked toward the officer, shooting.
Officer Flowers, still pinned in his vehicle, deployed his rifle and stopped the suspect.
Even while responding to one thing, something terrible that you didn’t foresee can happen.
Encounters like this are thankfully rare, but this creates a mental strain on cops who have a hard time establishing trust with people.
Even in my smaller jurisdictions, there was one police officer and one sheriff murdered in the line of duty. These were not accidents or fluke happenstances. People created circumstances then engaged and killed officers.
This continual risk, heavy responsibility, and ever-increasing scrutiny combine to create some incredible stressors.
In the meantime, there are consequences.
Police, drawn to adrenaline-fueled activities, have a hard time with personal relationships, often making poor decisions. For example, while the national average for divorce is 50%, cops push that to 60% to 75%, depending on studies.
Cops often succumb to an “us versus them” mentality. First, it’s the bad guys against the cops, then it’s the administration against the cops, and it regularly feels like the media against the cops too.
As a result, that window of trust shrinks even smaller, and cops only associate with other cops who “get it.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a very real threat. Substance abuse can become a factor, and suicide is always a risk.
Post-retirement life expectancy is questionable based on some conflicting studies.
Here’s something anecdotal and concrete — many law enforcement agencies are struggling to recruit and retain officers rights now.
Potential candidates weighing work versus what they get out of it often find something other than law enforcement.
How Do We Fix It?
I’m not saying we need to lower the standards in any way – we don’t.
We need to support high standards for our law enforcement professionals. But, in addition, we need to enable them to meet those goals.
This means funding, training, and supporting them. We need to hold police accountable and understand the particular challenges they confront on their shifts.
Every 24 hours, police respond to mitigate, diffuse, or stop criminal situations that either chip away at the fringe of society or outright threaten it. They do this while dealing with their own problems.
Sidebar: There’s a great documentary on HBO called Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops about two officers who run a model program that takes a much different and more successful approach to deal with mental health calls.
These guys emulate not only the caring behind their work but the personal struggles they set aside to do it. Definitely recommend giving it a watch.
No, law enforcement isn’t the most dangerous profession, but it holds a high cost for the people who hear the call to serve.
All cops are human and therefore fallible, with good days and bad ones. But most of us try to remain professional. If we do a better job of showing our communities what we endure, we might achieve a better understanding for all.
What are your thoughts on policing and its effects on the modern office? Sound off in the comments below. For more on LE, check out back issues of The Blue Brief.