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Recent Violence Against Police Officers


Police violence and misconduct is in the news again after former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted of multiple charges late last week in connection with the killing of the teenager Laquan McDonald. But recent events have also brought the issue of violence against police to the spotlight. Also last week, seven police officers were shot in Florence, S.C., as they tried to issue a search warrant. One of the officers, Terrence Carraway, died. A week earlier, two Mississippi police officers were killed during a shootout with a suspect. Now, violent crime has fallen over the last few decades. But, according to the FBI, killings of police officers is up slightly over the past year, and policing remains one of this country's most dangerous jobs.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we've contacted Maria Haberfeld. She is a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and she's with us now. Professor, thanks so much for talking with us.

MARIA HABERFELD: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about the numbers? I mean, we know that policing is safer than it was 30 years ago, but we saw that there has been this slight uptick in the killings of police officers. Do you have any sense of what's going on?

HABERFELD: From my perspective, it's really what we should be looking at. It's not so much the numbers, which, statistically, you know - yes. When you say 20 percent, it's significant or 30 percent. But then, when you look at the real numbers, we're talking about 40-something officers versus 30-something officers. So, from my perspective, it's really what drives the offender, why these police officers were killed in the line of duty, you know? We don't know exactly what drives the offender. And, therefore, we don't necessarily always know whether it's some trend that we are seeing that is dangerous and disturbing.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that, but I wanted to ask you about that South Carolina case. Is that an outlier? Some of the data suggests that, actually, most on-duty police officer deaths happen because of car accidents and not shootings. So is this kind of a violent encounter? Is that an outlier?

HABERFELD: Not necessarily. It used to be that most police officers were killed in traffic accidents. But, today, it's not the case. If you look at the most recent years, we're looking more at the ambushes of police officers, premeditation and we're looking at investigative activity, where they're handling, you know, persons with the mental illness. So it's not - traffic violations and traffic stops are no longer the most frequent reasons for this.

MARTIN: And you're saying that they're premeditated by - what kind of actors, as it were?

HABERFELD: There are people who see police officers as an arm of the government, which, of course, they are. And they're motivated by their political beliefs, that, you know, the police are there to oppress, that police are biased, racist. And we've seen it in the last few years. In general, the climate, in the last few years, is very anti-police in United States. So when you put together the propensity towards violent behavior as an outcome of mental illness plus a triggering event, then you have the catastrophic outcome.

So if somebody's looking at - let's take yesterday events in D.C. on the steps of the Supreme Court. You seeing police officers pushing back the demonstrators. So somebody looking at police officers identifies them as part of the establishment, as part of the government that they are demonstrating against. So it doesn't take much to take your anger out on police officer because you cannot take your anger out on a given politician. Instead, you're doing it against a representative of the government, who's a police officer.

MARTIN: Before we conclude here, both in cases of police violence against citizens and the cases of police officers being harmed by civilians, often the question of training comes up. Now, that is one of your areas of expertise. Are there training issues that you think we should be talking about here in connection with this?

HABERFELD: Oh, absolutely. When we are looking both at the investigative enforcement deaths and the ones that are a part of the ambush entrapment activities, it is definitely a training issue. Officers frequently sit in the car - in the police car - and feel comfortable and feel safe and secure. And this is not something that is always a reasonable thing to do given the particular environment, given a certain political development that might be putting their lives in danger. So these are tactical issues - how you approach an apartment, how you approach a house where you know there is a suspect who is armed and dangerous. The problem is that we have 18,000 police agencies. And when you have 18,000 police agencies, you cannot institute standards for recruitment, standards for training which would certainly help us mitigate the negative perception of policing as a profession here.

MARTIN: But more broadly, though, do you feel that there is also an issue of violence directed at police officers that needs more public attention?

HABERFELD: Absolutely. I mean, to me, it's absolutely unacceptable that nine officers in one year are killed in the line of duty as an outcome of premeditated activity that was directed against them explicitly. No democratic society should accept nine police officers in one year in separate incidents killed by members of the public. This is absolutely unacceptable.

MARTIN: That is Maria Haberfeld. She is a professor in the department of law, police science and criminal justice administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Professor Haberfeld, thank you so much for talking to us.

HABERFELD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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