Cop Killers – The UCR vs.The Wire

September 1, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is it OK for social scientists to use statistics in a misleading way when they write for the general public?

Peter Moskos is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His Cop in the Hood is based partly on his work as a police officer in Baltimore. Here’s the lede from a piece he wrote in the Washington Post with Neill Franklin, also a former Baltimore cop.

They follow this with:
In many ways, Dante Arthur was lucky. He lived. Nationwide, a police officer dies on duty nearly every other day. [emphasis added]
Let’s see – 365 days a year. That makes nearly 180 such deaths each year.

I’ve been out of the crim biz for a while, but that number sounded high to me. So I went to the UCR. Sure enough, in 2007, 140 police officers died in the line of duty. As Moskos and Franklin say, nearly one every other day.

But 83 of those officers died in accidents, only 57 were homicide victims – one every 6 days. Still a lot. But how many of those were drug-related? The UCR has the answer:


Nor was 2007 unusual. In the decade ending 2007, 1300 police officers died on the job. About 550 of these were in felonies, not accidents. And of these, 27 were drug-related. Three a year is still too many, but it’s a far cry from one every other day.

Maybe I should have looked at a DVD of The Wire instead of the UCR.

Officer Arthur will not appear in this table of the UCR. It counts only deaths. So I looked at data on assaults on police officers. There were 59,000 non-fatal assaults on police officers, nearly a third of them in “disturbances,” i.e., fights (at home, in bars, etc.). Curiously, the UCR does not have a separate category for drugs in these tables. In the Arrest category, it has Robbery, Burglary, and Other, which must include drugs. In that Other category, 174 assaults were with guns.

Total Assaults 59,201
Disturbance 18,789
Other Arrest 8,935



Using the drugs/other ratio from the table on deaths (about 1/3), we get about 60 non-fatal shootings (like that of Officer Arthur) in 2007 – one tenth of one percent of all assaults on police officers.

Moskos and Franklin argue that federal laws should allow states to make the manufacture and distribution of drugs legal and regulated rather than criminal. The authors make several good arguments against current drug laws, which have created many problems that legalization might ameliorate. But I’m skeptical as to whether legalization would make much of a difference in police safety.


Corey said...

"Maybe I should have looked at a DVD of The Wire instead of the UCR."


Y'know, my initial reaction was to raise to Peter's defense; I use Cop in the Hood for my Criminal Justice Processes class and Peter has been very accessible to me. But I can't argue with your analysis or the facts it is based on.

PCM said...

“Ouch,” indeed. And ironic, since both Franklin and I actually policed in real life the streets of The Wire.

But come on, Corey, you need more faith in me!

I take my numbers seriously and I criticize others for exactly what you’ve criticized me for. So I feel I need to defend myself thoroughly. You’re not being fair to me.

As is often the case, a little qualitative insight is needed to round out the quantitative data. The numbers aren’t showing the real picture. You have too much faith in the UCR numbers. For what it’s worth, I was in the unique position of actually putting data into the URC for a year before analyzing the same data coming out the other end. Sort of a unique position for a researcher (conflict of interest?), but I can actually identify some of the UCR homicides in 2000/2001 as “mine.”

First the non-disputed part.

The best source for info on officer deaths is The Officer Down Memorial Page. It’s much more detailed than the UCR (and probably more accurate, too). Over the past four years, the average deaths per year is 162.5. Not half of 365, but close enough to say “nearly one every other day.” But you grant me that.

But Dante Arthur wasn’t killed. He’s not a UCR or officer-down stat. And of course we’re all happy for that. But his life-changing war-on-drugs injury (he got shot in the mouth) all but disappears from the public record after a few days in the Baltimore Sun. It would be great to have a database on prohibition violence, but we don’t have one.

But the real issue you’re getting at is the circumstances of deaths and injuries. Fair enough.

(continued in next comment)

PCM said...

It’s a generally accepted figure in Baltimore that 80% of homicides are drug related. How do we come up with that. Well... yes, to some extent it’s just made up. But it’s based on experience and common sense and made up by homicide detectives. And it rings true. So grant me that 80% figure for Baltimore homicides if you will.

Go to the UCR homicide supplement for 2006 (you could pick any year, but I just happen to have that file handy). There are 270 homicides listed for Balto. There were actually 276 murders that year, but that’s another issue.

Run a frequency table for “Offender 1: Circumstance.” Narcotic drug laws are listed as the cause in 3 murders, or 1.1 percent of all homicides. 1.1 percent?! That’s a big difference from 80%

At this point one of my favorite lines comes to mind, “What are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes.”

I think it’s safe to assume that a similar under-representation exists for the drug-related circumstances of officers killed.

If two drug dealers are fighting and one kills somebody, that’s not listed in the UCR as drug-related. It’s an “argument over money or property.” If a cop is killed in a car crash responding to the scene, it’s listed as a motor-vehicle death. If another drug dealer is found dead along the way with no witnesses, the death is listed as “circumstances undetermined.” But it’s all drug deaths. The UCR doesn’t tell the whole story.

If the UCR listed officer’s injured, Arthur Dante’s injury would not be listed as drug related. It would be listed as “arrest” or “other arrest.” And I simply don’t believe the UCR data on officers assaulted. I think they’re worthless (but that’s not for this post).

I like your pie chart (Does SPSS do that now? Maybe it’s time I upgrade from my 20-year-old version 8.0), but you’re not looking at the meaning of the data correctly. Of those 103 “traffic stops,” how many of those are drug related. I don’t know. But I’d guess 80-90%. Man wanted a drug warrant. Police trying to conduct a discretionary search of a car for drugs. Officers don’t get killed pulling over my mom.

“Disturbances”? I’d guess about 1/3 with the rest being domestic violence (though probably 1/3 of those are drug-related as well). “Other” and “Other Arrest”? Probably half. “Ambush”? Maybe 25% (I keep thinking of those crazy white kooks killing people. Those are not drug related.)

And I’d guess probably 10-15% of traffic deaths are drug-related. My friend Crystal Sheffield died in such an accident, trying to backup another officer involved in, yes, a drug-related dispute. But you won’t find that in the UCR.

So put it all together and what do you have? A lot of prohibition and drug-related deaths. And there are multiple times more injured than killed in similar circumstances. We don’t put a number in the op-ed because we don’t have a number (maybe you and I could keep that database?)

But from our experience and my participant-observation research, we both know (often personally) officers hurt and killed in the drug war. We both have a pretty good idea about how it fits into the total picture. So UCR data be damned!

I will grant you one point. We’ve been accused of writing this op-ed with this angle to make legalization more palatable. On TV I was asked if this was just a “ploy” (I think that was the word). Uh... yes. That is the idea.

And if I can think of another angle, I’d use that one, too.

Writing a 800-word op-ed is different that writing an academic journal article. But I wasn’t and don’t play fast and loose with the numbers. It just so happens that the UCR numbers themselves play fast and loose with the facts.

(and I do graciously accept apologies.)

For what it’s worth, just published a nice piece about my co-author, Neill Franklin, on violence in the drug war.

Jay Livingston said...

Peter, Thanks for the informative comment (and surely the winner in the “longest comment in the 3-year history of the SocioBlog” contest). I share your skepticism about the absolute accuracy of much of the UCR. But . . .

“a similar under-representation exists for the drug-related circumstances of officers killed..”

I went back and read quickly through the descriptions of felonious cop killings for 2007 – about fifty summaries (here).

These go into some detail, usually more than the info in Officer Down. They don’t add many cases to the column of killings that wouldn’t have occurred under legalization.

One, in Memphis, was clearly a drug case – a traffic stop, the cops smelled pot. A St. Louis case is probable: kids flee on foot, the cop searches for them, one kid shoots the cop as he’s getting out of his car. The shooter had prior drug violations. There was a similar case in Toledo – police stopping kids in a drug area – but the summary mentions no drug priors, just police assault and weapons. The only “disturbance” that included drugs was a domestic in Indiana: a mother finds pot, her 15-year-old son becomes abusive, she calls the cops, who were “met in the driveway by the teenager’s mother and aunt, who reported that the youth had armed himself with a rifle and was possibly suicidal.” The kid was also under the influence of narcotics. He shot the cop and then himself.
In the other summaries that mention drugs, it’s because the killer was under the influence of narcotics, usually along with alcohol. It’s possible that some of the killers were drug dealers (one in PA was a known dealer, but the crime he was committing when the officer was responding to was robbery). Is it possible that the summaries would mention priors for weapons, assault, and robbery but not drugs?

I couldn’t find any summaries of accident deaths or of assaults.

So it looks to me as though the UCR undercounts the number of police deaths attributable to the misguided Drug War. But not by much. How much does it undercount similar assaults? I can’t even guess.

(I did the graph in Excel.)

PCM said...


Now we’re getting somewhere (and I’ll try not to exceed the character limit). The Dept of Justice link you have above has gotten much better than last time I checked, especially with the narratives.

What’s needed is a better analysis of the circumstances. I think part of the problem is that “drugs” (like “Hispanic” for demographers or “domestic violence” for police) is an overlapping concept. Police officers never official “die” from prohibition. They die from shootings and car crashes. It’s hard to figure out if it’s drug related. It’s not that this information is unknowable, but it's not readily out there. And though I chuckle every time an academic says further research is needed, further research is needed!

I do take what I consider to be a very broad perspective in terms of “drug-related.” My standard is: if drugs were legal and the drug trade were regulated and peaceful, would the incident have happened.

When I spot check the DoJ report for incidents I do know are drug related, none of them come up as drug related (or come up at all). Specifically I’m talking about Baltimore officers Kevon Gavin (run over by a drug dealer), Michael Cowdery (shot by a drug dealer), and Crystal Sheffield (going to a drug corner). Now granted n=3 is not huge sample, but still… oh for three.

We don’t give numbers in the op-ed because we don’t numbers. Maybe I should try and figure out those numbers. Somebody should (though it would be a very depressing research project to exam the death of a police officer nearly every other day).

But seeing how three officers I worked with died because of drug prohibition in Baltimore City alone between 2000 and 2002, I think it’s a big problem (though I admit my perspective may be a bit skewed because I policed in a violent area). But I still say my perspective of “many” is closer to reality than the UCR data of 1 per year nationwide.

Sure, without numbers, the piece wouldn’t get accepted in a peer-reviewed journal. But it is an op-ed opinion piece. And I still stand by our basic point: drug prohibition unnecessarily hurts and kills police officers.

Jay Livingston said...

Peter, I’ve been critical of the tendency in this country to treat problems in moral terms, a perspective that leads us to look for more punishment rather than better solutions. (See here), for example. So I understand why you want to argue that Prohibition is bad for the good guys (cops), and the legalization would be good for them and not just for bad guys and the people they live among.
The question I raised in the original post on your article was this: how many cops are killed or assaulted because of the Drug Wars? My answer was that according to the FBI’s UCR, which gets its info from police departments, not all that many.

If the numbers in the UCR are worthless, then the answer is that we just don’t know. But I think that at least on deaths, the UCR summaries are valid. I’d also guess that the count of assaults with a firearm is pretty accurate. How many of those are “drug related” or a consequence of the Drug Wars? I don’t know. And I agree with you that someone should get a grant to do some research on it.

That said, you and Neill have more important critics on the left than me to worry about, like Mark Kleiman, who’s much better informed and whose blog is far more widely read.

PCM said...

But Mark never accused me of (purposefully?) misusing statistics to mislead the general public. An a professor, I take that charge seriously.

There's a difference between using a anecdotal lede and using misleading statistics. The only statistics in the piece are the "nearly every other day" line and Miron's estimate of the cost of the drug war. We'll have to agree to disagree on the validity of UCR descriptions.

Just because I can't use (seriously flawed) UCR data to quantify the risk doesn't take away from our idea that "too many" are hurt and that the drug war "present[s] danger toward men and women in blue."

I think it's borderline absurd to argue that fighting the war on drugs is not a significant occupational risk to police officers. But honorable people do not always have to agree.

"How many cops are killed because of the war on drug?" is a great question. I'd love to know. But I guarantee the answer is certainly higher than "one."

And I too have been very critical of framing policy debates in moral terms (see my book, "Cop in the Hood"). I like to think in terms of policy that saves lives.

And don't worry, I wasn't posting here to get famous. I was posting to defend myself against what I saw as an unfair attack. But perhaps even more so, I enjoy these exchanges!

All the best,

Corey said...


Just for the record, it's not like I didn't have faith you. I figured you'd be by to defend yourself (and do so much more effectively than I could). Jay's data analysis struck me as solid and beyond challenge (from my base of knowledge or command of the facts). Now that you've answered by presenting some other data, I'm going back to my corner to think about what you've presented and decide if I've been persuaded.

(By the way, my class, so far is enjoying Cop in the Hood. They're 3 chapters in...)

Corey said...

Ok... I've had some time to digest the exchange. (Well done fellas).

Here's my understanding of the debate. Peter, along with his co-author Neill Franklin, argue that drug prohibition is counter productive (and ultimately, causes harm... both to citizens and cops). To illustrate the linkage between the policy's destructiveness and real people, they present the anecdote of Dante Arthur followed by a loose statistical claim that officers like Arthur are killed every other day.

Jay, channeled Joel Best and called shenanigans on Peter's statistical claim. According to the UCR only a fraction of LEKA (Law Enforcement Killed in Action) are directly attributable to violence in policing drugs.

In turn Peter responded by reminding us of the inherent limitations of the Uniform Crime Reporting program and that "Police officers never officially “die” from prohibition. They die from shootings and car crashes." Bringing us to a counter-factual:

"if drugs were legal and the drug trade were regulated and peaceful, would the incident have happened."

In framing that question, Peter asserts that drugs are the causal factor. Kleiman at point 4 disagrees. I suppose that I take a position that's closer to Kleiman's than Peter's. Not that I disagree with Peter in Principle. I don't think you can seriously study police and not conclude that our drug policies drive police practices. But in pursuing the counter-factual, I take the Durkheimean position that if we were to legalize drugs, either: (a) black market drug violence would persist, or (b) those currently engaged in black market drug violence would find a new arena to operate.

At the end of the day, like Meghan McArdle's counter-factuals on the effectiveness of firearms, we lack data to reconcile this one way or another.

SabotageGigante said...

Too lazy to do this myself, but has anyone looked into changes in number of officers killed per (as an example) man hour worked? I wonder if the numbers would be as vivid as the numbers on incarceration rates starting in the 80's like here

Jay Livingston said...

Corey, Thanks for the summary. You've nailed it, especially as to what bothered me about the opening of Peter's WaPo piece. To go from the Dante Arthur incident to the statistic of a cop killed every other day implies that most of those deaths occurred in circumstances similar to those of Officer Arthur. My point was that if you look at the UCR summaries, such incidents, rather than being typical of cop-killings, are a rarity.

That's a much narrower question than what the effects of legalization would be. I don't know enough to even speculate on that.

But, to go off topic, what struck me when I was reading through the summaries of cop deaths was that what makes police work dangerous, fatally so, is not so much that cops have to enforce bad laws but that everybody in this country seems to have a gun.

PCM said...


Now I understand Jay's objection better. I/we never meant to imply or infer that drug prohibition and the war on drugs kills an officer every day. That thought had never even occurred to me (even in all the above posts).

I didn't understand that this was the main objection. Inasmuch as are saying that in the piece, that's our error is writing. It was not our intention. It never even crossed our mind.

I mean, I would have probably used the same imagery and structure for an op-ed telling cops to wear their seatbelts or anything else related to line-of-duty deaths. I was trying to use the imagery of the funeral for dramatic effect and point out that job is indeed dangerous (as I also do, and perhaps more effectively, at the end of Chapter One of my book).

I was trying to get across the idea that "one death is too many" without resorting to that cliched phrase. I'm much better at thinking in counter-factuals than I am in writing transitions. And the piece was originally written and accepted for publication way back in January, right after Dante was shot, when such imagery might have made more sense.

Corey, thanks indeed! I really like the way you've framed this discussion. I would love to take your class! (and not just because I already own the textbook.)

I think the greater difference does indeed come down to a disagreement on the persistence of drug violence and criminal activity in a world with legal and regulated drugs. I think they would both plummet... of course I might be wrong. But as I like to ask, "When's the last time you bought moonshine?" (Corey, please insert W.V. joke here) I've never seen illegal alcohol for sale.

But then we're back to debating the merits of prohibition in general.

PCM said...

Eric, the short answer is no.

Generally, and often much to people's surprise, the long-term trend is that policing has been getting safer for police officers since 1974. And that's for both fatal shootings and for all line-of-duty deaths.

Police line-of-duty deaths peaked in 1974 at 280 and dropped to a low of 138 last year (2008).

PCM said...

Kleinman (see Corey's post above for the link) says: "Yes, street gangs do some drug dealing. But it's absurd to imagine that the gang killings would disappear if the drug market became legal."

It wasn't absurd when Prohibition ended that murder went down when the alcohol market became legal (and against what drys said would happen).

Street gangs do some drug dealing? That's like saying Al Capone sold some hooch. Prohibition make public dealing violent (and guns make their violence particularly easy and effective).

And it's important to note that the mob didn't disappear in 1933. But the were weakened and much less of reason to kill each other. The same thing would happen to drug-dealing gangs.

And something else bothers me in Kleinman's smugness: the idea that all those "gang members" are irredeemably violent or bad. I don't buy that. I think (admittedly on less solid ground) that if you took the money out of the violent culture, you'd change the culture and lessen the violence far beyond that directly caused by drug prohibition.

I wonder if Kleinman would support a return to alcohol prohibition? Because his logic certainly seems to advocate prohibition as a means to harm reduction. Now *that's* absurd.

PCM said...

Do you think this is drug-related prohibition violence? Because I do.

Jay Livingston said...

Peter, Thanks for the link. I’m inclined to agree with your colleague David Kennedy that these killings are more about gangs (and guns) and their cycles of honor/revenge than about drugs.

On this campus one summer many years ago, there was a killing. One kid was bullying another – taunting him all summer. One day he took the other kid’s basketball. The victim of the bullying decided he wasn’t going to take it any more. He went back to his neighborhood, got a gun, returned to campus, and shot the bully.

It ended there. But suppose that the dead kid had gang buddies, and they came back and killed the shooter, and then the shooter’s gang ambushed the other gang, killing ten, and then that gang retaliated by killing ten of the other gang.

How many of these 22 deaths are “basketball related”? And how many of these deaths would have been prevented if only we could somehow get rid of basketball?

PCM said...

Is it stands, I would call it a bullying-related death.

But if your hypothetical were yet another example in a long and steady and repeated and even predicable acts of violence that happened time and time again on the basketball court, then yeah, I would call it a basketball-related death. Or perhaps more accurately, a basketball-taking-related death.

But it's not part of a greater trend of basketball violence. So it's just an incident.

PCM said...

I'd also call the Jonathon Ayers shooting war-on-drugs related.

But it certainly won't be classified that way.