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Becoming a Police Officer: Risks

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Updated on Dec 2, 2010

If police departments are offering such generous salaries and benefits, you might be wondering why positions are available at all. One reason that people often prefer not to discuss is that there are risks entailed in being a police officer. Yet, many of the risks are less about physical danger than about the stresses that come with the anticipation that danger could occur even when it does not.

Every police officer on television except those in comedy shows seems to fire a weapon at least once an hour. In reality, most police officers retire at the end of a 20- or 25-year career without ever having fired a weapon other than at the practice range. Certainly the vast majority have never had to fire at another person. An example of how fiction does not reflect fact can be seen in the activities of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), the nation's largest law enforcement agency, with more than 35,000 officers in all ranks. Shooting incidents in the department have been decreasing; according to the NYPD, in 2007 there were 111 police-involved shootings, 16 fewer (a decrease of 12.6%) than the previous year. Even these figures are misleading; of the 111 shootings, 45 were directed at criminals and 39 at animals, mostly dogs that police said were attacking them. Other reasons were 15 accidental firearms discharges and 12 that were defined as unlawful (including suicide, attempted suicide, and illegal shooting, firearms discharge by a person other than the police officer). The total number of shots fired was fewer than 600; quite different from the shoot-'em-ups that make up most fictional police dramas and the shows that claim to represent reality.

Does this mean police work isn't dangerous or that there are no risks? Not hardly. Policing can be a dangerous job and therefore not for everyone. Some of the danger is physical; there is an ever-present possibility of attack or of being asked to perform physically taxing tasks. Another kind of danger, though, is psychological and can come, as mentioned, from thoughts of the possibility of danger or, more likely, from the stresses of being exposed to negative events in the lives of others.

When asked about stress, officers most frequently mention the police organization itself as a stressor. The need to make decisions on the streets or highways, but then to have those decisions so frequently questioned by the public, the media, and senior officers within the department, leads many officers to feel they are constantly under scrutiny for even the most routine activities.

Facing physical danger in a job does not mean you must see yourself as Superman or Wonder Woman. It means, though, that you must put fears aside to when you run into a situation in which others are running away, and consider the safety of others before your own.

Each year, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) adds to its wall in Washington, DC, the names of officers throughout the country who were killed in the line of duty the previous year. For the past 10 years, the numbers have fluctuated from 169 in 1998 to 181 to 2007. On the list are those killed feloniously, including those shot or attacked physically, and those whose deaths were accidental, perhaps in auto accidents while on duty either pursuing a suspect or killed while a suspect was fleeing other officers. Some officers drowned while trying to rescue people, some were attacked while serving civil restraining papers ordering people to leave their own homes.

The dangerousness of policing is sometimes questioned because a number of occupations are comprised of workers who die at higher rates than police officers. These occupations include fishing, logging, and piloting airplanes. Yet these fields are dangerous in different ways; in these jobs worker deaths are likely to be the result of industrial accidents, whereas police are more likely to be killed intentionally or in situations that have gotten out of control but that, with the exception of the large number of traffic accidents, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be defined as accidents. While workers in other professions are expected to take precautions, such as undergoing special training or wearing safety equipment, none don a bulletresistant vest each day to counter the possibility that they might be shot at or stabbed by an assailant.

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