Learn About the Dangers of Being a Police Officer

Police Officer in Mourning
Police Officer mourns a fallen officer. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Most people understand that the day-to-day job of a police officer is full of potential dangers. Nearly every day, we see news stories of another police officer somewhere in the United States who is hurt or killed. We know there are bad people out there who are willing to do us - and any law enforcement officer who gets in the way - harm. But do you really understand the real dangers of being a police officer?

Ask any officer and they will quickly tell you that, even in today's seemingly critical environment, the vast majority of people law enforcement officers meet each day are compliant - if not exactly friendly - and respectful. Even if they're not happy about getting a ticket, a notice to appear or even arrested, most people understand and appreciate the job that law enforcement is trying to do.

Dangerous People Are the Most Recognizable Threat to Police

Most officers also know - or learn very quickly - that there are a select few people who are on the fence, so to speak, over whether or not to comply. In those circumstances, how an officer interacts with those folks will very often determine how the encounter will go, which is why soft skills are so important for police officers.

And then there are those very few people who have every intention of hurting or killing police officers from the very start.

For those people, no matter what the officer may do, they intend to do harm. 

On average, 64 police officers per year were killed by criminals between 1980 and 2014, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. A relatively small percentage, given there are approximately 1 million officers working in the United States.

But in 2013, nearly 50,000 police officers were assaulted - meaning 9 out of every one hundred officers were attacked.

The challenge - and the inherent disadvantage - for police officers in any given citizen encounter is that they never know which kind of person they are dealing with. And so for a police officer, every single citizen interaction comes with a tremendous amount of risk of being assaulted or killed.

People Aren't the Biggest Danger to Officers

It's not a surprise to most that police encounter people who may want to hurt them; most people recognize that risk. What is often underappreciated, especially by career hopefuls who want to become police officers themselves, are the other dangers that come with the job.

The National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund reports that over the 10-year period ending in 2015, an average 144 officer were killed each year. Coupled with the 64 per year feloniously killed, and you can quickly see that the majority of officers  - 80 per year - who die in the line of duty are killed by accident or other means besides the hands of a criminal. That means the greatest dangers to officers are the least understood or appreciated.

Traffic Is a Huge Threat to Police Officers

Traffic accidents are a tremendous danger to a police officer, especially those whose primary responsibilities are traffic enforcement.

Traffic fatalities have consistently been the single leading cause of death for police officers for the past several years.

Officers spend a great deal of time driving, which naturally increases their risk of being in an accident. Add to that the dangers that come from driving in emergency response or police pursuits and you can quickly understand the increased risk.

On top of their own driving, many officers work outside of their vehicles on busy streets, whether at scenes of traffic crashes or traffic stops, Those officers are in extremely vulnerable positions and risk getting hit by inattentive drivers. In fact, most officers will tell you one of the things they fear most is traffic.

Training Accidents Cause Injury and Death to Officers and Police Recruits

Training, too, can be dangerous for police officers.

It's no secret that law enforcement careers come with physical rigors and that the training to become a police officer can be very intense, whether in firearms, defensive tactics, physical fitness or immersive programs like active shooter response training.

The nature of police training is such that there is a relatively high potential for injury or even death if safety precautions are not imposed and adhered to. Even then, officers and police recruits alike can succumb to injuries they incur during their training.

Numerous Health Risks Inherent in Police Careers

And then there are the truly hidden dangers that come with the job: health. Numerous reports, including a comprehensive study by the University of Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professionals, have identified significant links between police officers' jobs and their own health.

According to those studies, there are two primary components that contribute to significant health issues for officers: shift work and stress. Non-standard working hours, especially rotating shifts, encourage poor sleeping habits and police officer fatigue. Add to that the stress that comes from working in an already dangerous and libelous job, which in turn foster poor eating and exercise habits and associated health issues become a significant danger to officers on the job.

Suicide is a Hidden Danger for Police Officers

That stress, along with the potential for post-traumatic stress from being involved in frightening and dangerous incidents, horrific scenes of death and destruction and unpleasant encounters with angry citizens can lead to yet another hidden danger: depression and suicide.

By some estimates, somewhere between 120 and 150 police officers commit suicide each year, at a rate of about 17 suicides per 100,000 officers, 1.5 times higher than the rate of the general population and nearly triple the number of officers killed by criminals each year.

Why Should You Want to Be a Police Officer?

So why would anyone want to be a police officer? The fact of the matter is that despite the dangers that come with the job, they can all be overcome. Mental fortitude, physical strength, a healthy spiritual life and the soft skills and hard skills necessary to make every citizen encounter successful are accessible through training, reflection, and caution.

The policing profession offers an opportunity to help others and to make a difference. It fills a void in the world, where individuals are willing to make sacrifices in order to serve a greater cause: the safety and well-being of our society as a whole.

Our world needs guardians to protect each other from the dangers we all face, and the law enforcement profession offers the opportunity to be a part of something more important than the self. In the end, despite the dangers, a job in law enforcement is more than worth the risk for the well-qualified officer.