Numbers from the authoritative Bureau of Justice Statistics give some indication of the scope of the improvement. The incidence of violent crime reached its all-time high in 1991, and since that time has been cut nearly in half. The homicide rate was also cut at roughly the same pace, reaching its lowest level since 1963.
If any other serious social problem — such as poverty, or marital instability — showed similarly encouraging results we would applaud policies that might have contributed to progress. Instead, the American Civil Liberties Union insists that "American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war." Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., enthusiastically agrees, decrying 1997 legislation providing local police forces with free surplus equipment from the Pentagon. But statistics show such programs have done nothing to slow declining crime rates, and might have even accelerated those improvements in public safety.
Moreover, there's no evidence that trigger-happy police use more deadly force because they're itching to try their new fire power. The number of annual police killings from 2005 to 2012 remained stable at about 400. Nearly all the tragic, well-publicized incidents of young black males dying at the hands of white cops occur when officers are isolated and vulnerable; none of the controversial recent shootings involved military style deployments with hordes of police in riot gear. Less than a quarter of all police uses of deadly force involved white officers firing at black suspects; in fact, a black male is 60 times more likely to die at the hands of another black male than to perish through actions of a white cop.
In addition to historic improvements in public safety for civilians, enhancements in training and equipment have lowered mortal risks for the officers themselves. During the 1970s, cops averaged more than 200 deaths a year in the line of duty, including hostile fire as well as fatal accidents, with fatalities reaching their peak (280) in 1974. Since that time, despite big growth in the number of officers patrolling our streets, the allegedly "militarized" police have proved less vulnerable to assault, with only 100 officers killed in 2013 — the lowest death toll since 1944.
Most Americans would celebrate this change if they knew about it because they view police officers in an overwhelmingly positive light. A June Gallup Poll asked respondents about their confidence levels in various institutions, and 53% expressed "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the police. Only 16% said they viewed cops with "very little" or "no" confidence. Among 16 listed institutions, the police finished near the top in public esteem, ranked below only the military and small business, and above organized religion, the medical system and the Supreme Court. Television news and Congress, by the way, finished at the very bottom.
These figures demonstrate the absurdity in claims that public sentiment now sees law enforcement as a hostile, occupying army. In fact, the popularity of the military — top-rated institution in the nation, according to Gallup — suggests not all Americans object to local police replicating the discipline and professionalism of our armed forces.
Even at a time of intense public controversy over policing in the black community, it's worth remembering that literally tens of thousands of African-American lives have been saved due to enhancements in police training, tactics and equipment in the past two decades. With black people making up nearly half of all homicide victims, no community has benefited more substantially from plummeting homicide rates.
As conscientious leaders look for new ways to make our cities even safer for people of color and all others, it ought to be obvious that police officers aren't the problem, and will continue to play significant roles in all future solutions.
Michael Medved, a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors, hosts a daily conservative talk radio show.
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