How deadly are police compared to the regular population in America? I did some rough calculations and here are the results.

The FBI reported that in 2012 there were 12,765 murders and 310 justifiable homicides committed by private individuals for a total of 13,075 killings. The FBI data on killings of private individuals by police is deeply flawed, and so for that figure I will use the Killed By Police Facebook page which accumulates a number based upon local media reports. KBP only started collecting data in mid 2013, so I will use the 2014 figure even though the year is not over yet. That number is 1,073 killed by police so far. The figure also includes accidental killings, or killings when police are acting outside of official duty. A random sampling done by FiveThirtyEight estimated that those incidents comprise 7% of the 1,073. While other estimates have placed the total annual tally at as high as 1,400 people, I’ll be generous and take off the 7%, putting the number at about 1,000 people. In 2012 the US population was approximately 314 million. A 2008 figure for federal, state, and local police with arrest powers was 885,000. I’ll round that up to roughly 1,000,000 just to cover any growth since 2008.

So the killings by private individuals per 100,000 is about 4.2 people. The killings by police officers per 100,000 cops is approximately 100 people. That means police are 24 times deadlier per capita than private individuals in America. If the population at large had the same kill rate as police there would be ~314,000 homicides per year, a veritable genocide.

UPDATE: I’ve since adjusted this estimate to include the final year end numbers as of 1/1/2015, as fell as some extra data from the Fatal Encounters database. I’ve also switched to using the estimate of the US population aged 15 – 64 instead of the 314 million figure. The result was that police are 18 times deadlier than private individuals in America. If private individuals in America killed at the same rate there would be roughly 242,625 homicides per year, a veritable genocide.

Many would likely attempt to argue that this results from the nature of the job. Police are dealing with dangerous criminals and therefore it’s understandable that their kill rate would be much higher. But such an argument neglects some key points. Firstly, in systems of customary law, all offenses are treated as torts which result in monetary restitution paid to the victim. In Medieval Britain, for example, prior to the assimilation of virtually every aspect of the law and justice under state control, victims were responsible for gathering the support necessary to pursue an offender. Victims had an incentive to force the offender to submit to adjudication rather than to kill them because an act of homicide outside of any attempt to legally resolve the dispute could result in the victim losing the protection of the law. Additionally, if the offender could not afford the monetary restitution, killing them would mean they wouldn’t be able to work off their debt to the victim. By taking over the functions of investigation and arrest, police in America are effectively preventing the victim from pursuing monetary restitution. Unlike the victim, the police have no major incentive to see to it that the offender is taken alive, and in the interest of officer safety, they oftentimes kill an alleged offender rather than place themselves at risk in order to make an arrest. The fact that police kill so many people when attempting to apprehend them doesn’t necessarily show that they are dealing with a dangerous person or dangerous situation, but that they have no real incentive to develop methods of arrest which are more prone to keeping the alleged perpetrator alive. In fact, their prioritization of officer safety and of “controlling” every situation means they are more likely to violently and needlessly escalate confrontations thereby creating the conditions where an alleged offender gets killed.

Police also don’t have much of an incentive to pursue violent offenders in the first place because they are tax funded and get everyone’s money regardless of the results they produce. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, in 2012 44.2% of violent crimes were reported to police. The study states that police reporting can “come from the victim, a third party (including witnesses, other victims, household members, or other officials, such as school officials or workplace managers), or police being at the scene of the incident.” Of those, according to the FBI, in 2012 46.8% were cleared by arrest, or by “exceptional means.”  That means about 79% of violent crimes did not lead to an arrest and the placing of the alleged perpetrator before a prosecutor. How is it that the vast majority of violence garners no response on the part of the government justice system? The incentives had by police are not so much to go after violent criminals, but to engage in policing functions which result in fines, fees, tickets, and civil asset forfeiture. In other words, police are much more likely to prioritize the enforcement of victimless crimes because those are the most lucrative. That might help explain the estimated 50,000 – 80,000 SWAT raids done per year, the vast majority of which are carried out to service narcotics warrants that could result in civil asset forfeiture. Many of the types of situations they are dealing with are not all that dangerous, or if they are oftentimes it’s because they are needlessly placing themselves and others in danger by doing something like a no-knock SWAT raid in the wee hours of the morning. Indeed, homicide rates against police are actually slightly less than those for the average US city. In 2013, for example, 27 police officers were killed as a result of felonious activity, which is the lowest since the FBI started collecting the data. But even though being a police officer has been getting steadily safer, and despite the fact that violent crime rates have been steadily declining since the 90s, killings by police are on the rise. One investigation even revealed that in Utah in the past five years killings by police have outpaced those by gang members or drug dealers or child abusers.

police killings


But hey, maybe those killings by police just show how efficient they’ve gotten, and that’s why crime rates are declining, right? One study done in the 90s estimated that Americans spent $300 billion annually on private security efforts such as personnel, alarm systems, surveillance systems, etc., whereas total government spending on the criminal justice system (policing, corrections, etc.) was about $100 billion annually (pg 79-80). Also, in the 1970s the ratio of private security personnel to public police was about one to one, whereas now it’s somewhere between two and three to one (pg 88). The explosion of the private security industry and the growing prevalence of alarm and surveillance technology arguably explains the trend of decreasing violent crime rates. In fact, it’s estimated that Americans use firearms almost 7,000 times per day in self-defense. That is an astounding statistic. Americans utilize a firearm in one way or another, whether that be simply mentioning the gun, brandishing it, pointing it, or firing it, 2.5 million times per year in self-defense yet there were 310 justifiable homicides by private individuals in 2012, and 13,075 total killings (pg 162-163). Why don’t regular Americans shoot to kill 2.5 million times when threatened? Why do only 0.01% of those incidents result in a justifiable homicide? It’s regular people working their productive jobs that are on the front lines of crime more so than police, and they along with businesses are the ones who foot the bill for all the private security technology (as well as police salaries, of course). And not only is the private security industry much larger than the government one, it’s also more effective because it is preventative rather than reactionary. Given that police make up about 0.3% of the population the likelihood that they will witness a crime or be able to respond in time to stop it is very low. At best they can show up after the crime has already taken place, file a report, and maybe do something about it later, even though they don’t really have to because they get those tax dollars almost no matter what. Private security personnel on the other hand are much more guaranteed to be immediately present in order to protect a body or patrol a parking lot, and as such are preventative. Their success in the market depends upon their ability to produce real, actual results. Their prime function, like locks on doors, bars on windows, bulletproof glass, private firearm ownership, alarm systems, surveillance systems, etc., is to deter crime. If your security system can only react AFTER a crime has taken place then it has already failed. It’s prime purpose should be to prevent crime, then secondarily to allow you to respond effectively to stop a crime in progress, and lastly to allow you to at least get some evidence such that the offender can be apprehended later. Police provide none of those features but instead can only use any evidence you may have to try to track down the criminal. But of course any suggestion that the private security industry should be allowed to fully expand by removing any regulations, and by making police funding voluntary, doesn’t sit well with most people. The idea of private security personnel, private neighborhood patrols, private investigators, private bounty hunters, etc., terrifies many even though all of those things already exist. Thoughts of Blackwater stream through their minds, even though Blackwater was government funded and protected.

private security

Of course the entire reason that police “services” are of such poor quality is because they are tax funded which means there is little financial incentive to provide quality. Government “private” security would suffer from the exact same incentive problems. Genuine private security is voluntarily funded and competitive, and therefore will tend to be of much higher quality. Indeed, a 1986 study on Starrett City, a 153 acre apartment complex in a high crime area of Brooklyn, with 56 buildings and 5,881 apartment units, and ~20,000 racially and ethnically diverse tenants, with a median income of ~$24,000 1984 dollars, looked at the consequences of having private security. Security that worked directly for the tenants, not government middlemen who can extract tax dollars at the threat of imprisonment. The study concluded that it was one of the safest communities in the US despite how bad the surrounding area was. Their private security responded to ~94% of service calls, whereas NYPD responded to ~31% of calls in the 75th precinct in which they resided (pg 153-156). Today, private security is booming in areas where the failures of government police are most obvious, such as in Detroit.

Perhaps one of the most important advantages of private security over police is that they, or their employers, are legally and financially liable for their actions while on the job. Private security firms must buy liability insurance, and if their employees continually committed crimes while on the job they would go out of business very quickly. Private security firms have an incentive to make sure their employees conduct themselves lawfully, and to see to it that they hire the right kind of people to begin with. The Supreme Court has ruled that police departments on the other hand cannot be held liable for isolated bad hiring practices (pg 179-180). And if a police officer does commit a crime, it’s oftentimes the very same police department that controls the crime scene, evidence gathering, and investigation. Of course the blatant conflict of interest means they won’t be likely to find wrongdoing with one of their own employees, not to mention the fact that the officer sometimes has the luxury of crafting their official statements after having ample time to review the evidence so as to be able to concoct a version of events that plausibly renders them innocent or justified. In the event that a police officer does get placed before a public prosecutor once again they have a good chance of being shielded from consequences. The prosecutor relies on those same police to arrest alleged offenders so that they can have some kind of conviction rate. Police and prosecutors work hand in hand on a daily basis. That conflict of interest means the prosecutor is not likely to press charges, or is likely to manipulate the grand jury process, which they control completely (the defense lawyer can’t even be in the room), such that no indictment is returned on an officer. And if an officer does eventually get sued in civil court for damages arising out of abuse of power, the chances that the officer or the police department will suffer any financial consequences are virtually non-existent. Instead, the taxpayers are forced to subsidize the criminal behavior. In the past five years the NYPD alone has cost taxpayers $428 million in police related settlements. The fact that police are so insulated from legal or financial consequences for their actions greatly lowers the risk of committing violent crimes. And in a cost benefit analysis, when the potential cost goes down, all things being equal, the action becomes more likely.

So how exactly can anyone justify police being 24 times deadlier than the private individuals who they are allegedly protecting? How is it that the most violent element in society is tasked to protect it from violence? The answer is that police were not created to protect persons or property in America. Instead, they find their origins in the function of crowd control, whether that be for riots in the North or slave rebellions in the South. Police exist not to protect, but to control. They exist to collect taxes and enforce the will of the political class onto the rest of the population. They publicly proclaim that we must follow their every command, even if they’re wrong. And when they do commit crimes the chances are higher that they will be shielded from any legal or financial consequences. So remind me why we need them again? Why should we tolerate those who presume to be our sovereign masters in the 21st century?

what would you say

I think it would be appropriate here to end with a quote from Lysander Spooner,

The government does not, indeed, waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon him from the roadside, and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed to rifle his pockets. But the robbery is none the less a robbery on that account; and it is far more dastardly and shameful. The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a ‘protector,’ and that he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him to ‘protect’ those infatuated travellers, who feel perfectly able to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection. He is too sensible a man to make such professions as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful ‘sovereign,’ on account of the ‘protection’ he affords you. He does not keep ‘protecting’ you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, and an enemy to your country, and shooting you down without mercy, if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villainies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.” – No Treason No. 6: The Constitution of No Authority (1870)

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