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by Peter Moskos

September 1, 2009

Those Slippery Stats

Somebody tried to do to me what I tried to do to the Heritage Foundation. I was accused of playing fast and loose the numbers in my Washington Post op-ed.

In the old days I could have just challenged him to a duel. I'd feel pretty confident going into that battle! Instead I have to defend my honor with a written reply to this:
"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.
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.

You can read the whole post here.

The Wire line is ironic since both Franklin and I actually policed the streets of The Wire.

I replied with this:
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.

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 officers 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, 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!
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.)


rogueregime said...

"...a little qualitative insight is needed to round out the quantitative data."

Kind of something what happens when you take a closer look at the data, isn't it? ;)

Corey said...

Peter... I'm glad you went over and engaged with Jay on this. I consider Jay to be one of the most fair-minded soc bloggers out there. I was a little disappointed with the snark in his initial post but am pleased with the exchange that it produced.

Carry on...

PCM said...

In no small part thanks to you, Corey.