It’s tragic when any worker is killed while doing his or her job. It’s also much too common. According to the US Department of Labor, 4,585 people died on the job in the United States in 2013, the most recent year in which full data is available. That’s about 88 worker deaths a week or 13 a day. But in recent years, one occupation’s dangers have increasingly been singled out for recognition by American society and the mainstream media: those faced by police officers.
In fact, based on the massive funeral service last week for slain Hayward Police Sergeant Scott Lunger at Oracle Arena and its wall-to-wall coverage, you would think that cops not only have the most dangerous job in America, but also the most important — by far. The huge event, which was attended by thousands of police officers, civilians, and elected officials (including Governor Jerry Brown) and featured numerous reporters live-tweeting the eulogies, resembled a memorial service for a head of state. It was splashed across the front pages of both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune the next day, and the page one headlines in both papers referred to Lunger as a “warrior,” while the news stories portrayed him as a hero.
This was not unusual. In recent years, cop funerals around the nation have morphed into giant spectacles. So much so that they’ve become wildly disproportionate to the dangers of being a police officer and the relative importance of the job.
Although police officers certainly perform a pivotal role in our society and work in a dangerous profession, they don’t have the most dangerous job in America, not by a long shot. It’s not even in the top ten. What is the most dangerous? According to a 2015 Bloomberg News report based on labor department statistics from 2006 through 2013, fishermen have the deadliest job in the nation. In fact, fishermen are eight times more likely to be killed on the job than cops. After fishermen, the other top ten most dangerous jobs in America are: loggers, aircraft pilots, extraction workers (which include explosives workers and oil drillers), iron and steel workers, roofers, garbage collectors, farmers and ranchers, truck drivers, and power-line installers and repairers.
So where do cops rank? Fourteenth, behind agricultural workers (11), construction laborers (12), and taxi drivers and chauffeurs (13). You read that right: It’s more dangerous to drive a cab or chauffeur the wealthy in America than it is to be a cop. So, then, why aren’t there massive funerals featuring governors and mayors and TV news crews when a cab driver or a power-line worker or a fisherman is killed? And why aren’t these people referred to as “warriors” and “heroes” when their jobs are more dangerous than that of cops?
“It’s disproportionate,” said Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris, referring to the massive size of cop funerals these days and the glaring media attention they receive. “Police officers are not supposed to be ‘warriors,’ they’re supposed to be protecting and serving their community.”
Burris, who has spent his career exposing police misconduct, argues (I think correctly) that we should be more concerned about all the people killed by police each year. After all, there are a lot more of them. According to the Washington Post, which has been tallying killings by police this year, 463 people were shot dead by cops in the United States in the first six months of 2015. And July was the deadliest: police killed 103 nationwide.
Cat Brooks, a prominent Black Lives Matter organizer, argues (I also think correctly) that the use of the term “warrior” in describing police officers who die on the job says a lot about the state of our society and helps explain why cop funerals have grown out of control. The word “warrior” fits with the media narrative that police officers are fighting a domestic war of some kind and are stationed in war zones, especially if they’re in cities with high crime rates like Oakland. But a war against whom? Blacks and Latinos, Brooks contended. “Black and brown people tend to live in areas that are viewed [by police, the press, and the public] as ‘war zones,'” she noted.
And the false narrative that cops have the most dangerous job serves to dehumanize people in these “war zones,” and to portray them as “enemy combatants” who are expendable. “It gets used to justify police brutality,” Brooks added.
Burris and Brooks also contend that the increasingly large funerals for cops represent a pushback against the Black Lives Matter movement, which sprung up around the nation after a series of high-profile killings by police last year. At last week’s funeral, for example, police supporters held signs that read, “Cops Lives Matter.” “It’s propaganda to beat back a movement that is challenging policing in general,” Brooks argued.
She and Burris are right, of course. Cop funerals have become a disturbing symbol of our society’s screwed-up priorities. We’ve lost sight of the fact that while many police officers do fine work and deserve our respect and admiration, they don’t deserve hero worship or to be labeled as “warriors.”