We Overvalue the Lives of Police


Police kill quite a lot of Americans.

We don’t have exact numbers because police departments go out of their way to obfuscate them. But it’s more than it ought to be. The reasons why it happens so much are opaque as well, though racism, militarization, and a lack of consequences come up the most. I’d like to offer another, however.

We overvalue the lives of police.

Stripped of the uniforms and badges, the ranks and regulations and legal codes, a police officer’s job is take the risks the rest of us can’t or won’t in order to protect the lives and property of citizens. In other words, to put his or her life on the line for the safety of others.

Reduced to a moral calculus, a police officer should be more willing to risk her own wellbeing if it means protecting the wellbeing of another than you or I are expected to be. How much more is an open and difficult question, but which side–the officer’s safety or a civilian’s safety–ought to get more weight isn’t open and isn’t difficult. Because accepting that asymmetry comes with the job. If you don’t accept it, there’s no shame in that, but you shouldn’t be a cop.

The fact that police kill too many Americans, then, is a symptom of police, at a cultural and institutional level, getting this calculus backwards. Cops are much more willing than they ought to be to sacrifice civilian wellbeing, even civilian lives, at even the faintest threat to their own. If they feel threatened, they shoot. If they see a knife, they shoot. If they think you’re reaching for something, they shoot. The job of the cop, in other words, isn’t to risk herself for the safety of others, but to ensure that she gets home safe at the end of the day.

We won’t solve the problem of police violence until we fix that. Until we instill in America’s police an understanding of the job they signed up for.

We won’t solve the problem of police violence until we value the lives of cops less than the lives of civilians.

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