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.