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The Blue Brief: The Most Dangerous Job?

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.

You might think an officer in uniform tops the list, but you’d be wrong.

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.

Logging
Yeah, that’s probably dangerous.

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.

Police at protest
Police at protest

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.

Ten solid points and my sincere acknowledgement if you can name this film in the comments below.

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.

Baseline

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.

Yep, you can lose this and more if you misbehave as an officer.

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.

IG vs reality
Instagram vs reality (Photo: Event 360)

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.

The Pareto Principle (Photo: Productive Club)

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.

Officer writing a police report
While a portion of work might be minor stuff, every once in awhile something bad happens.

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.

In Totality

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.

Circle of Trust

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.

FBI Agents training with their sidearms (USA Today)
FBI Agents training with their sidearms. (USA Today)

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.

Conclusion

No, law enforcement isn’t the most dangerous profession, but it holds a high cost for the people who hear the call to serve.

Police Car Lights

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.

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19 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar
    JPO

    While I truly appreciate these Blue Brief posts, I've spent the last 14 years working in Federal law enforcement or in closely related fields with Federal, state, and local law enforcement, and many officers and agents don't have the same attitude. Sadly many LEOs, especially older LEOs, are jaded and view much of the public, especially the routinely carrying public, as potential criminals. My advise is to remain professional, but sceptical of any law enforcement. There are many good cops out there, but there are way too many who think that cops are the only ones that should have guns and everyone is a potential criminal. If approached by a cop keep your hands visible and refuse to answer any questions without a lawyer.

    July 9, 2021 8:43 pm
    • Sean Curtis

      JPO,

      Thank you for your service, and thanks for the read! I know from experience you are correct in some instances but it is truly difficult to make broad-sweeping generalizations for such a large group of people (roughly 800,000 officers in the U.S.).

      It would be a superhuman feat to not become at least a little jaded working day-in and day-out with the clientele we serve and with potentially fatal encounters being completely random. Lack of trust is at an all time high from both sides. This creates a vicious cycle.

      I have found on both sides of the badge, that kindness and respect go a long way.

      July 13, 2021 11:09 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    BG

    My upmost respect for anyone who does a job I am not willing to do. That includes law enforcement, military, and not on the same level but to make a point, trash collectors.

    I am just starting a career in the fire service and I understand the call to duty.

    It is definitely not for the faint of heart but it is for those that feel the desire to fulfill a greater purpose.

    It is a shame the sentiment being propagated by the media but in my personal experience the police have always been there to protect and serve. And not that race has anything to do with anything but being a Latino male I have never felt "targeted" by the men in blue.

    The secret shoppers in the grocery stores is another story altogether but I didn't always portray the ideal shopper either even though I was never privy to shoplifting.

    From one man to another, stead fast brother and understand that God favors the shepherd who protects his flock from the wicked wolves and will not forget he who risks his safety for that of others.

    Much respect and love.

    -BG

    June 25, 2021 9:34 pm
    • Sean Curtis

      BG,

      Thank you for your observations and well wishing! I will echo your respect and love. We (in law enforcement) often tease our sibling emergency responders but secretly wonder if we chose the wrong profession!

      It's a little late for me, and I don't think I'd change anything if I had it to do over.

      Take care of yourself and stay safe!

      Sean

      July 4, 2021 1:18 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Daniel S.

    I dunno what to comment exactly because I have a bunch of conflicting thoughts and questions so

    *internal screaming and appreciation*

    Keep it up!

    June 22, 2021 10:04 pm
    • Sean Curtis

      Daniel,

      Thanks for the read! I get it, I'm conflicted myself about many of these issues and that may surprise you--feel free to voice them. My whole idea for writing about these things is to try and bring some more understanding. Cops aren't unfeeling robots running routines based on programming.

      Thank you for the support!

      June 24, 2021 7:23 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Rod

    I really like this column good sir. Police today are being asked to do an increasingly impossible job. I’m not surprised it’s hard to recruit. I have no idea how our society can fix this; took the military 40-50 years after Vietnam before the public respected soldiers again.

    June 22, 2021 8:23 pm
    • Sean Curtis

      Rod,

      What a great example, though clearly one that might only be known to a certain age of people. My friend Chuck, referenced in a previous article, came back after three tours in Vietnam and could not get a job at McDonalds after operating millions of dollars worth of military equipment. Many returning veterans in those days were called baby killers when they came home after the horrors they experienced.

      I don't want to say this is equivalent, but there are some similarities. Part of my goal is showing the good side and cautioning people against coloring the whole with the actions of a few. Thanks for the read and for stopping by.

      June 24, 2021 7:32 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Daniel

    I am eating up each of these Blue Brief posts as they come. Thank you for your continued service, Sean Curtis. I'm making my way out of high school and am considering making a career with the Alaska State Troopers since I was born and raised here in Alaska. Something I would love to see are funny stories from your career or from the academy. From a tactical point of view, I would enjoy any vehicle driving tips that you have gathered from your experience since I am on the road to getting my drivers license.

    June 22, 2021 2:19 pm
    • Sean Curtis

      Daniel,

      If I recall, Alaska has one of the highest rates of pay for law enforcement. It's interesting how that varies geographically.

      I would hesitate to recommend the career to anyone but Alaska is such a different beast, I'm betting you have far better ground truth than I do.

      I will absolutely try to work in some funny stories. I have a few. There are also tragedies aplenty.

      I was a speed freak as a kid. It ended up being useful when I became an officer but I had to lose my license (due to points) first. The biggest piece of advice I can give you is clear your intersections thoroughly! Also, weigh out the seconds you might save against the lives you may change if something goes wrong.

      Stay tuned and check back in, I'm rooting for you.

      June 22, 2021 4:12 pm
      • Commenter Avatar
        Daniel

        Great advice. Thank you!

        June 22, 2021 6:37 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Jeff

    Yeah no thanks
    Only politicians are a greater enemy to liberty and freedom then police they will gladly lock you up on what ever anti gun law the gov passes

    June 22, 2021 2:23 am
    • Commenter Avatar
      John

      Agreed

      June 22, 2021 10:13 am
      • Sean Curtis

        Thanks John, I definitely understand your reservations.

        June 22, 2021 4:07 pm
    • Sean Curtis

      Jeff,

      You've marched into a subject that is fairly broad in my humble opinion. Not all law enforcement is anti-gun. On the whole (damn me for generalizing) I've seen many police departments lean toward more regulation, but often sheriff's lean the other way. Typically, it shakes down from the top.

      Regardless, thanks for hearing me out.

      June 22, 2021 4:07 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Doug

    the good, the bad, and the ugly..

    June 21, 2021 3:16 pm
    • Sean Curtis

      Doug,

      You win the noprize! Well done.

      June 22, 2021 4:04 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Jeffrey

    Great article. Thanks for writing it. The police have been villainized a lot more than usual in the last year and it has an effect. It is important we understand their mindset.

    June 21, 2021 11:36 am
    • Sean Curtis

      Thank you Jeffrey, it's been a trying year for us all. I'm glad some are at least receptive to hearing another side.

      June 22, 2021 4:04 pm