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What Does A Culture That Values “Blue Lives” Look Like?

Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick have a lot to say about protecting police lives—but the biggest threats to officers aren’t toting guns.

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DALLAS, TX - JULY 11: Hundreds of residents show support for the Dallas Police Department at the Dallas Strong Candlelight Vigil on July 11, 2016 in downtown Dallas, Texas. Texas. Five police officers were killed and seven others were injured in a shooting ambush during a march against recent police-involved shootings. The iconic Omni Hotel has been lit in blue since the police ambush on Thursday. (Photo by G. Morty Ortega/Getty Images)

In the wake of officer shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Governor Greg Abbott announced his support for the Police Protection Act. The proposed bill would add targeting police to the list of recognized hate crimes, and put in place harsher punishments for crimes against officers.

Police already have increased protections under current law. Assault with bodily injury, for example, is generally a Class A misdemeanor. When the victim is a public servant, that is typically raised to a third-degree felony. The Police Protection Act would increase it to a second-degree felony if the victim is an officer.

In a press release announcing his intentions, Abbott wrote:

While our state and the nation continue to mourn the heroes lost in Dallas, it is time for us to unite as Texans to say no more. The men and women in uniform risk their lives every day to protect the public, and it is time we show them the State of Texas has their back. Texas will no longer tolerate disrespect for those who serve, and it must be made to clear to anyone targeting our law enforcement officials that their actions will be met with severe justice.

The statement echoes sentiments expressed by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who—addressing President Obama at a town hall forum on violence both toward and by the police—had his own thoughts on what people in government should be doing to protect police lives. He urged Obama to “be careful” with his words when talking about police violence, and to put blue lights on the White House to honor the fallen officers.

There’s been a lot of discussion about how best to protect police officers at a time when eight of them—five in Dallas and three more in Baton Rouge—have been killed by violence that appears to have targeted police. But when we talk about protecting police lives, it’s worth looking at the questions more holistically. What are the biggest risks police officers face, and if we truly value police lives, what are we willing to do to address those concerns?

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, 130 police officers died in the line of duty in 2015. Of those 130, 39 of them—30 percent—were killed by intentional gunfire. Another 30 percent of them were killed on the road, either in car or motorcycle accidents, in high-speed chases, or by being struck by vehicles. Heart attacks are not insignificant, taking seventeen lives. Lingering illnesses for officers who responded to 9/11 claimed eight lives, and other duty-related illnesses killed another ten.

And 2015 isn’t an outlier, either. Of the 145 line-of-duty deaths in 2014, 47 of were killed by guns, while 80 were killed in traffic accidents or because of health issues. Similar numbers hold up for the rest of the decade.

In 2016, meanwhile, gun violence has been up against police. That’s no surprise to anyone who’s watched the news this month—69 officers have died in the line of duty so far this year. Eight of them were killed by guns in the past three weeks, which brings the total killed by gunfire to 32. The other 37 deaths included 26 fatalities in traffic. (That number includes “vehicular assault” deaths, the category in which deaths caused by drunk drivers are classified.)

All of this can be instructive as we talk about police lives and how best to protect them. We can debate whether the White House should be bathed in blue lights, or if attacks like the ones in Dallas and in Baton Rouge should be prosecuted as hate crimes in the event that the suspect lives long enough to be prosecuted. But if we’re interested in blue lives, the discussion should also include the biggest risks for officers.

In 2010—three years before the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter started appearing on social media—NPR talked with a number of police officers about the risks of traffic fatalities. Many of them spoke about the issues they face on the road: fatigue, distracted drivers, drunk drivers, speeding, and more. In the six years since then, distracted driving has gone up significantly as smartphones have become more commonplace. Officers continue to work long hours. People continue to drive drunk and speed. And though DWI laws in Texas are strict and public information campaigns around drunk driving are prominent, other laws and campaigns that might address hazards to police lives are minimal. A law around texting and driving failed in the Texas Legislature in 2015; in 2011, a similar law passed through the Lege, but was vetoed by then-governor Rick Perry. At the moment, there’s no indication that a similar law is in the works for 2017, or if it has a better shot of passing—but whether it’s a matter for law or a matter for better public education, that risk to police lives is so far getting little attention. Speed limits have been on the rise in Texas in recent years too—in addition to the headline-grabbing 85-mph limit on roads like SH 130 near Austin, speed limits shot up in North Texas last summer.

Police face greater health risks than the rest of the population as well. A 2012 study by the University of Buffalo found a number of heightened risk factors for officers, including increased obesity, mental health concerns, and problems associated with working the night shift. Of the seventeen officers to die of heart attacks in the line of duty in 2015, only three of them were older than fifty, and many were in their twenties and thirties. In 2016, none of the officers to die of heart attacks were over fifty.

Officers in Dallas and Fort Worth, meanwhile, agree that their “plates are too full.” Dallas Police Chief David Brown called explicitly in the wake of the shooting this month for a reassessment of what we leave to police, telling reporters:

“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Brown said. “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding — let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding — let’s give it to the cop. Here in Dallas, we’ve got a loose dog problem — let’s have the cops chase loose dogs … that’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

So though one of the highest-profile police chiefs in the country says that problems like mental health and drug addiction shouldn’t be left to police officers, we rarely talk about the decriminalization of drugs or increased funding for mental health care when it comes to blue lives mattering. Those are things that could relieve some of the burdens police officers face, and perhaps reduce some of the stress and risks associated with the job.

The conversation around “blue lives” these past few weeks has been illuminating. Certainly, nobody wants to see police officers killed in the street. But attempts to talk about supporting and protecting the lives of officers have, thus far, been limited to ramping up the rhetoric around cop killers. That might be a satisfying response to the events that happened in Dallas and Baton Rouge (even if both suspects in those incidents died long before they’d ever face prosecution)—but for the majority of hazards that police face, the ways to address them are less about sweeping rhetoric.

Rather, they’re about practical responsibilities for people who share the road with police, the hours that officers work, the responsibilities they have, and the kinds of laws they’re enforcing. As we enter into this statewide and national dialogue about protecting our police, it’ll be worth seeing exactly what kind of changes we’re willing to make as we insist that blue lives matter.

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  • OldBlindBob

    Still waiting for the TM piece that takes an equally serious and rational look at the BLM movement and chastises them for not including the 85+% of black homicide victims killed by other blacks.

    • Jameika

      The Black Lives Matter movement addresses police brutality. It’s not hard to understand.
      An unacceptably large number of (mostly) black people are targeted by the police and too many of them are killed. We now have access to videos of this happening, which has woken up most people to the kind of violence that is done by the authorities we trust to keep us safe.

      Violence and crime on the part of civilians in any community is not the issue they are trying to address. What good is it to try and address that kind of crime when there is no one to call that you can trust to keep you safe?

      • Ian Sarver

        Tell me then why they would interrupt Bernie Sanders, a man who had marched with MLK jr. at a meeting in Seattle. Or why they would force themselves on the stage at a Milos Yiannopoulous speech to prove a point? Whey would they chant for the deaths of officers in the police if they wanted to address their grievances.They need to admit to these things because alot of the time there are things that we do not see when these things happen.

        We are so quick to call it police brutality when we need to be more objective. Am i saying that this doesn’t happen? Of course not but when the people that are supposed to be representing one side of the arguement start doing that kind of crap it takes away from the message of police brutality that they want to tell people. That is doing BLM a world of hurt because the majority of the messages that I have seen on social media is not positive at all about BLM.

        I just hope that one way or the other that when it comes down to it people are going to sit down and talk about this thing. If we don’t then we are going to be in a situation that we will no longer be able to get out from. I pray that this isn’t the case but I know that if we don’t do something about it now more people are going to die and the blood will be on everyone’s hands.

        • Jameika

          Indeed, this situation will eventually be discussed. Interrupting speakers is one way some people in the Black Lives Matter movement have tried to draw people into the discussion.

          Saying “We are so quick to call it police brutality when we need to be more objective” sounds like you’re suggesting that many cases of police brutality might not be. I find that very telling, but let’s, just for one moment, assume that many of these cases (not sure where you draw your line at your definition of “it” in this statement, but let’s say that it’s situations where black people are harmed in the process of dealing with the police) are just regular police work. Let’s assume that there is no malice. Let’s assume that there’s no racial bias. That’s all fine. The question we’re left with, though, is why are so many black people being harmed by the police? As a society that’s something we should be working to find out. If we are to trust the police to maintain safety and security in our society, aren’t we obliged to find out what’s wrong when that goal is being undermined? Don’t black lives matter to society?

          Not engaging the grievances of the Black Lives Matter movement because of the tactics of some is ignoring a larger problem that this society has. Americans should not be at risk of being killed by the police.

          • Ian Sarver

            What I am saying is that we are quick to judge these days, and that is why we need to be objective because not all situations might be police brutality. Like I said I am not saying that there is no police brutality and would not defend it if there were. I am merely pointing out that these things only bring negative attention to the movement. We are so quick to jump the gun when the guy could be a criminal running away from police and trying to ambush them or whatever. I am not saying that it doesn’t happen, but people need to calm down and address the matter at hand instead of calling for the deaths of officers which is what I was saying needs to stop but at the same time ignoring what others have to say because of a few stupid people is not the way to do so.

            Americans should not be at risk of being killed by the police but at the same time we need our officers to be safe so that they can do their jobs. Would you not agree? And while I am on this subject, I want to thank you for being a nice person and not browbeating me for my opinions. I feel like I have learned some things from you and while I may not at times agree with things you say, you have not made me feel stupid for having my own opinions on this matter. This is the kind of discussion that I hope that we can all have so we can move on to a peaceful society and be the kind of country the rest of the world looks up to.

          • Jameika

            No one in the Black Lives Matter movement is calling for police to be killed. That’s not what the movement is about. That’s not a goal.

            People who demonize police officers outright are just as wrong as people who suggest the protesters are troublemakers.

            It’s nice that you appreciate the discussion. I see not point in screaming at someone who isn’t. Sharing ideas is the only way people seem to be able to understand each other.

          • Ian Sarver

            I had heard that there were some in the movement that had called for that. If that isn’t true then I apologize for my mistake. If there were any people that had done that, I agree that they are just as wrong as the ones who suggest protesters are troublemakers.

          • OldBlindBob

            Then why are there chants “What do we want? Dead Cops. When do we want them? Now! at BLM marches? Or “Pigs in a blanket — fry ’em like bacon!” Certainly some in the BLM movement have called for killing police.

            This is a country of 330 million people and about 1 million police officers. About 100 unarmed black people are killed by police each year, but only 10 cops per year are charged with murder or manslaughter. In perspective, this is an infinitesimal percentage. Even if all 100 killings were “bad,” that is still a tiny percentage. About 125 cops are killed in the line of duty each year.

            I’m not trying to minimize the death of 100 people, but there isn’t an epidemic of people being murdered by cops. There isn’t an epidemic of cops being killed, either. I don’t think that grabbing microphones from presidential candidates, blocking roadways, angry shouting, looting and burning are proportional reactions to the situation.

          • José

            Unless you are prepared to accept Timothy McVeigh as just another small government conservative, or Westboro Baptist as just another neighborhood church, you really need to drop the insinuation that BLM represents people who advocate violence against police.

            You say that you aren’t minimizing the unjustified deaths of black people at the hands of police, and then you do exactly that. But concentrating on the numbers alone is avoiding the more serious problems, that law enforcement treats blacks and minorities more harshly for reasons that can only be credibly explained on the basis of race, and that far too many whites are complacent about this abuse of government power because it doesn’t affect them.

          • Jameika

            I’m sure you can find nasty people in any movement.

            It’s still bringing attention to a serious issue. I’m sorry that you don’t think the numbers are high enough to care about abusive police behavior, or that it has to involve a death to count as an issue, but I do find that a concern. If you or a community that you are part of felt threatened by the police and were regularly reminded of the treatment, you’d be upset, too. Or you should be.

            If you have no troubles with the police, great. That doesn’t change that some people are unfairly targeted.

          • OldBlindBob

            You said “No one in the Black Lives Matters is calling for police to be killed.” I pointed out that your statement is inaccurate. Calling for the death of police and assassinating 8 police officers in two weeks — even though not officially sanctioned by BLM — is only exacerbating the problem that already exists. Bringing attention to a serious issue is fine, but violence and threats are not the way to solve anything.

            I pointed out that only a very, very small percentage of police encounters go wrong. There is no way to eliminate all bad outcomes and taking one or two sensational events and claiming that those events represent all police encounters is just rabble-rounsing.

            I have plenty of troubles with the legal system — from bad lawmaking to bad enforcement to judicial misconduct. But overall, BLM has had a negative impact on the entire issue. Police will take a more passive role and the entire community will suffer.

          • Jameika

            Congratulations, then.

            So people who are “not officially sanctioned by BLM” (your words) represent the Black Lives Matter movement, but police officers who are hired and paid by the public, should be vetted for that job, and do actually do represent the group that they are officially a part of are free to do what they want and we cannot hold whole police departments responsible.

            That makes all kinds of sense. Thanks for pointing out that I should have said “no leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement”. It’s really those details that matter in this discussion of authorities overstepping their rights and harming citizens.

            Now, if only you would bother to consider that the Police and the Black Lives Matter movement are not opposing groups.

          • tom2

            It’s true, abusive law enforcement does occur but it’s relatively rare. On the other hand, overly emotional critics abound in the BLM campaign and it now looks much like other radical, bigoted groups on both sides in this nation. The president has been enormously successful in his strategy of divisiveness. It has become another signature characteristic of his administration. And his legacy will reflect it long into the future.

          • José

            Yes, the great majority of police officers are good, hardworking, moral people. Yes, these incidents occur relatively infrequently. But we are talking about people being abused and shot and killed by agents of the state who are sworn to uphold the law, and the victims are disproportionately blacks and minorities. How many such deaths are you willing to accept before you finally agree with these “overly emotional critics”?

          • tom2

            Victims are disproportionately blacks and minorities because criminals are disproportionately blacks and minorities. Sorry to say it out loud.

          • José

            Disproportional even accounting for all other factors. All.

            You probably didn’t think about the fact that many victims were not criminals. Sitting in a park is not a crime. Getting your drivers license, when ordered to do so by the police, is not a crime. Walking through a store and talking on a cellphone is not a crime. The common factor is that these people were black and they were shot. Jaywalking, running away after being pulled over for a moving violation, yes those are against the law but no policy authorizes lethal force in those situations. I challenge you to look at the recordings and say definitively that a white person would be shot under identical circumstances. They wouldn’t. They don’t.

            You probably didn’t think about the fact that black people have longer police records for the simple reason that they are stopped and questioned so much more often, again after accounting for all other factors. Friend, I bet that if a LEO dogged you 24×7 you would have a record too. Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican, spoke about this. Former AG Eric Holder did too. These are well educated men, well dressed, and busy with their careers. Yet they got stopped and questioned with regularity despite obeying they law and acting just like normal white folks.

            So no more of this blaming everything on blacks because you assume they deserve it. In a free society no one deserves to be a suspect by default merely because of the color of their skin. It’s tiring, it’s demoralizing, and it’s positively un-American.

          • tom2

            You started your post with an excuse. You’ve accused me of not thinking when you don’t know a damn thing about me. You cited rare catastrophic events and falsely suggested they’re common occurrences. Seems when you hear of one incident, you howl that a hundred million peaceable, lawful citizens and countless cops who weren’t there should be punished. You whine about the 24/7 dogging by police and praise race baiters and socialists. And you’ve suggested I blame “everything” on blacks. I’d like to believe we want the same things but you seem to have been poisoned by the radical leftists who indoctrinated you to the idea that you’ve been harmed by police, capitalism, self reliance, small government strong families and apple pie. It’s a pointless debate and waste of time.

          • José

            If you persist in suggesting that unequal treatment of black people is their own fault (“criminals are disproportionately black…”) and then bristle at being called out then maybe this is pointless.
            For the record I did not praise race baiters or socialists, I firmly support strong families, and apple pie is my absolute favorite.

  • José

    Nice bait and switch by Gov. Abbott. By saying “Texas will no longer tolerate disrespect for those who serve” he is lumping together two very different groups of people, the many who call attention to injustice in law enforcement with the few nuts who actually try to kill police.