Special Victims

April 13, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

An op-ed, by Glenn McGovern in the Wall Street Journal (here but behind a paywall) says that attacks on prosecutors are on the rise.  McGovern begins with the recent shootings of district attorneys in Texas.  Then he says,
Each year in this country, well over 100 police officers are killed in the line of duty.
That number is correct in a technical sense, but since McGovern is writing entirely about “attacks” on law enforcement officials, it’s misleading. Most police officers who die on the job – usually about 60% – are killed in accidents. 

 The number of lethal attacks on police never gets close to 100.

As for attacks on prosecutors, according to McGovern, the number for this decade, as of April 1, 2013, is 15.  By comparison, as of the same 44-months-into-the-decade* of the 1990s and 2000s, only six such acts of violence had been recorded in each of those periods.  He finds no “geographical logic” or other demographic patterns in these attacks.  But with a total of only 27 attacks over a 23-year period, differences would show up only if they were extreme. 

The 543 killings of police officers in the last decade do indeed show regional difference.

(Click on the graphs for a larger view.)

Both in absolute numbers and rates per population, cop-killing is most prevalent in the South.  My first guess was that this had to do with the greater prevalence of guns in the South.  It’s no surprise that guns, especially handguns, are the most frequent weapon when cops wind up dead.

But when it came to choice of weapons, differences between regions were minimal and in an unexpected direction.  In the South, about 3.5% of the weapons used in nonlethal attacks on the police were guns (not including “personal weapons,” i.e. fists and feet).  For the Northeast percentage of guns was slightly higher – 4%.  Yet the South kills far more police.  So if it’s not the choice of weapon, we are left the Southern culture-of-violence explanation: When Southern men feel they have been seriously wronged, they are more likely to use violence to defend their honor. 

It’s in the South that we are most likely to find “stand your ground laws” allowing the deadly defense against the intrusions of other people.  It’s also where we’re more likley to hear anti-gun-control arguments based on the idea that guns are necessary to defend against the intrusions of government. 

This explanation should hold for attacks on prosecutors as well.  As McGovern says, the prosecutor must almost inevitably denigrate the honor of the defendant:
For hours and hours over many days and weeks, under the glaring eyes of a defendant seething with anger, these prosecutors argue to a judge or jury that this person should be locked away for life, or even forfeit his life.
The number of incidents is too small to reveal patterns of regions of urban vs. small town.  Let us hope that it remains that way.  Sometimes a small n is just what we want.
*I’m not sure how April 1 is 44 months into the decade rather than 39. 

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