What’s Going On: What do we really think about police officers?

It had been a long day for the Dallas mayor, and he looked it.

“Our police department was attacked this afternoon,” Rawlings said at a news conference hours before a suspect was arrested for shooting two officers. “I continue to be upset at the lack of respect for our police in this city and this country,” he added.

The two police officers were critically wounded but would survive. The bad guy got caught and now sits in jail.

But it was the mayor’s remarks about a lack of respect for police that struck a familiar chord.

Ever since the officer-involved shooting in Ferguson, Mo., and civil unrest that followed there and throughout the country, I’ve frequently heard the “we don’t respect police” mantra on several occasions.

President Trump asserted it when he was Candidate Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, reiterated it. In his first speech as the top law enforcement official in the country, Sessions claimed an increase in violent crime in 2016 was attributed to this perceived lack of respect for police.

So when I heard the frazzled mayor repeat this familiar refrain, I wasn’t surprised. But I couldn’t help but wonder: Is it true?

Do we really respect police any less today than 10, 20, 50 or even 100 years ago? And how exactly would you quantify that argument one way or another?

Well, one way would to be actually ask people if they respect police officers, something the good folks at Gallup have been doing for decades.

And according to them, respect for police is at an all-time high.

Of the 1,017 people Gallup surveyed in 2016, more than 76 percent reported they had “great respect” for local police. If that number seems high, it is. In fact, since Gallup started asking that question in 1965, only once was the percentage higher … at 77 percent … in 1967.

That respect for law enforcement apparently extends to the younger generation as well. Just last year, in a survey of children under the age of 12, being a police officer is the number three dream job overall, up from number 10. And with boys, it’s number one … ahead of athletes.

But hey, words are cheap. Actions speak volumes. And arguably, there is no action that shows more of a lack of respect than taking someone else’s life.

Fortunately, there’s a way to track those numbers too thanks to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund. The most decorated police officer in the history of New York City started this not-for-profit in the 1980s to document, recognize and remember those who died in the line of duty.

This group has no political axe to grind or agenda to promote. They exist solely for posterity sake and to make sure officers who make that ultimate sacrifice will never be forgotten.

And those numbers they provided are eye-popping.

In 2017, 129 police officers were killed in the line of duty. That sounds like a big number and considering that’s one dead police officer every three days, it probably is.

However, it is a number on the decline. In fact, only once since 1959 was the number lower at 120 … in 2013.

Looking back at those numbers and you quickly recognize a decline in officer fatalities is more of a trend than an anomaly.

Through 2017, we are averaging 152 officer deaths per year in the 2010s. Coincidentally, 100 years ago in the 1910s, we averaged 148 officer deaths per year. Of course, 100 years ago there was about 100 million people living in the United States. Today, there’s more than three times as many with 325 million.

But ignoring the population changes and looking strictly at the number of officer deaths, there has been a massive decline recently. In the previous decade, 171 officers died per year, which was still down from 175 in the 1990s. The numbers seemingly peaked in the 1970s with 233 deaths followed by 191 a year in the 1980s.

Most interesting though was when the number of officer fatalities actually did peak. It wasn’t the 1970s, or 1960s, with abundant civil unrest and when many would claim our society’s morality started running off the rails.

No, the peak time for killing police officers took place in the 1920s and 30s, with 248 and 226 officer deaths per year, respectively.

You know, the alleged “good old days” when churches were packed, children were spanked and before liberals, Hollywood moguls, and atheists destroyed our moral fabric.

I understand why Mayor Rawlings said what he did. He needed an enemy to blame. The “we don’t respect anything anymore” is one we hear a lot in relation to authority figures and to some extent its true.

But if you hear someone selling a narrative that some institution, organization or political movement is causing us, as a society, to respect police less, don’t buy it.

The numbers tell a very different story.


Gregory Orear is the publisher of The Journal. His award-winning weekly column, “What’s Going On,” has been published in four newspapers in three states for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at gorear@nujournal.com.