Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Rise in officer traffic deaths points to need to limit high-speed chases

There have been lots of stories lately about the 37% rise in police officer fatalities last year, from 117 in 2009 to 160 in 2010. Eighteen officers were killed in Texas, more than any other state, and as usual "fatal traffic incidents ... were the leading cause of officer deaths for the 13th straight year." USA Today reports that the data are prompting some departments to reevaluate their policies surrounding high-speed chases, which kill around 360 people per year. Said the paper:
Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina  who has studied police pursuits since the 1980s, says the actual number of fatalities is "three or four times higher." Another complicating factor: bystanders killed after police stop chasing suspects — even seconds afterward — are not counted.

About 35%-40% of all police chases end in crashes, Alpert says. He says the nation's 17,000 police departments are moving toward more restrictive chase policies "because chasing someone for a traffic offense or a property offense is not worth the risk of people's lives and well-being."
A significant number of officers who die in traffic accidents weren't wearing seat belts, a related USA Today story reports, "At least 42% of police officers killed in vehicle crashes over the past three decades were not wearing seat belts or other safety restraints, according to a federal review." Further, "seat-belt use could not be determined in nearly 13% of the fatalities, suggesting that non-compliance could be higher." The largest category of increased fatalities from 2009 to 2010, reports USA Today, involved traffic deaths.

Reducing deaths from traffic accidents seems like fertile ground for reducing officer fatalities. No one can control the actions of criminals, but departments can implement policies to rein in unsafe high-speed chases and to make officers wear their seat belts.

In 2009, police officers were killed on the job at a rate of 13.1 per 100,000 full-time officers (or at least, 100,000 FTEs), according to preliminary data from the federal Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (pdf). The CFOI for 2010 hasn't been released yet, but if that rate increased 37%, it would reach 17.9 per 100,000 - among the highest in recent years, but still lower than 2007 when the per-100,000 fatality rate for police officers reached 19.8. Last year's police death total, by contrast, was the lowest in years, so 13.1 - 19.8 deaths per 100,000 has been the recent range for the number of annualized police deaths (with the rate swinging fairly sharply from year to year because the numbers are so very small).

These data let us know that police officers jobs are much more dangerous than most. The overall, national on-the-job fatality rate was 3.3 per 100,000 workers in 2009, and for local government workers it was just 2.4, meaning police are four to six times as likely to be killed on the job than the average American and 5.5 to 8.25 times as likely to be killed on the job than the average local government worker.

There are, however, a number of common occupations that stand out as being more dangerous than law enforcement.

Perennially, the most dangerous jobs are fishing, logging, and piloting aircraft. But other common jobs are dangerous, too. Putting food on your table is dangerous business: Farmers and ranchers, for example, died on the job at a 38.5 per 100,000 clip in 2009. And so is getting rid of all your post-holiday waste: Garbage collectors died in 2009 at a rate of 25.2 per 100,000 (notably down from 36.8 in 2008). Putting gas in your car puts people at risk: Those involved in oil and gas extraction died at a rate of 21.6 per 100,000. So does making your car: For steelworkers the death rate was 30.3 per 100,000. And putting a roof over your head, literally: For roofers, the death rate was 34.7. Just moving stuff around from place to place is a risky proposition: The CFOI lists a 2009 per-100,000 fatality rate of 19.4 for "Truck transportation"; 18.3 for "Driver/sales workers and truck drivers."

There are also quite a few common occupations whose 2009 per-100,000 fatality rate falls squarely within the range witnessed in recent years for police officers. Groundskeepers died at a rate of 15 per 100,000; for their supervisors it was 16.2. Construction workers died at an 18.3 per 100,000 clip. Fifteen of every 100,000 taxi and limousine workers died, and the rate for employees of "Drinking places, alcoholic beverages" was 15.5.

For those interested in more detail, see current and historical data from the CFOI.

None of that is meant to diminish risks taken by police officers, but rather than engage in alarmism over a 37% increase I think it helps to put the relative risk in perspective. If you watch the CFOI data from year to year, because the number of on-the-job deaths are so small, the numbers tend to swing dramatically with little rhyme or reason (witness the radically declining death rate for garbage collectors mentioned above). A single year's data aren't particularly probative, which is why the federal study regarding police seat belt use, which aggregated data from 30 years, is an important contribution. To reduce law enforcement deaths on the job, the most effective thing that can be done is not to buy more body armor or military gear, but to change how and how much officers drive.

Just to mention it, police officers in Texas and elsewhere are more likely to die from suicide than they are to be killed on the job by criminals, traffic accidents, or anything else. To reduce officer deaths, suicide prevention, reducing the number of high-speed chases, and forcing cops to wear their seat belts are no doubt the areas where police administrators can get the most bang for the buck. I don't get the sense, though, that any of those things are major priorities at most departments.

RELATED: San Antonio police supervisors could have tracked, reined in habitually speeding cop who killed colleague


Anonymous said...

I heard a rumor that it is now law in austin that leos must abandon chase when the chase exceeds the speed limit. Damned good idea, really, imo, but does anyone know if this is actually the case?

Anonymous said...

I'm guessing not, based on apd's abysmal (but still far better than wilco) record in the past.

Anonymous said...

Police Departments That Are Conservative

Phelps said...

It's depressing to me that the only way to get the poilce to think about this it to point out that they can get killed... but that they kill innocent bystanders in all this isn't something that the police really consider.

(Not a slam on you, GfB. I understand why this was posed the way it was.)