On National Police Week, officers 'feel more scrutinized than ever'

Jorge L. Ortiz

National Police Week often slips under the radar, much as speeding drivers wish they could.

For law-enforcement officers, however, this is a time to honor their fallen comrades, and, under the right circumstances, also an occasion to be recognized for the perilous duty they perform.

In recent years, police throughout the country have come under intensified scrutiny in the wake of several killings of unarmed black men at the hands of officers, most of them white. Several of those deaths have led to protests and calls for reforms and heightened accountability, especially when the officers have not been penalized.

But when 25,000-40,000 people gather in Washington, D.C., this week to partake in National Police Week activities, they will provide a reminder of the vital role law enforcement serves and the sacrifice many officers and their families have made.

A total of 158 officers died in the line of duty in 2018, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, and the tally is at 42 this year.

“They are public servants and we need to keep that in mind,’’ said Chris Harris, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who has researched public perception of police and their performance.

“People call the police when they need them and the police come. That’s not true of every nation in the world. It’s important we remember that these officers do on occasion put their lives on the line as a public service.’’

Here are five things to know about National Police Week:

What is it?

Mostly, it’s a large-scale commemoration of the officers who perished while doing their job, with attendance by representatives from all over the U.S. and some foreign countries. There are also seminars, receptions, pipe band performances and bonding opportunities for officers and their relatives.

Police Week came into effect under President John F. Kennedy’s administration in 1962 with the designation of May 15 as Peace Officers Memorial Day.

What are the events?

The highlights are Monday night’s candlelight vigil at the National Mall, where officers killed in the line of duty in 2018 and those previously unrecognized will be remembered, and Wednesday’s 11 a.m. memorial on the west front of the Capitol. At that two-hour service, all the fallen officers from last year will be commemorated.

In keeping with recent tradition, President Trump and other high-level elected officials are expected to attend, although their participation is not confirmed ahead of time for security reasons.

How dangerous is their job?

It’s hard to imagine any other occupation in which 10% of the employees were assaulted every year, but statistics show that’s the case with police. One positive development, though, is their fatalities have been steadily declining since the 1970s, when the totals routinely rose well into the 200s.

Last year’s figure of 158 was the sixth lowest this century, and it includes 27 deaths due to illnesses related to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

At the current rate, this year’s number of police deaths would be around 115, the lowest figure since 1959.

How do people feel about police?

Better than it might seem. Harris said citizen satisfaction surveys consistently rank police high, although the numbers dip some among minority groups and also take a hit when high-profile incidents like the Rodney King beating get exposed.

On Monday, the Bureau of Justice Statistics tweeted that 83% of residents were satisfied with the police response during their most recent contact, and 89% said officers behaved properly. Those figures were from 2015, based on a survey conducted every three years. The results were released in October.

Are police under siege?

That would be too strong a term to use, but they’re under a microscope. Technological advancements have made it much easier for instances of police misconduct to be exposed to the public eye, and the killings of unarmed black me like Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Stephon Clark have drawn national media attention.

Harris said police realize being closely monitored comes with the territory.

“They’ve always been scrutinized to a heavy extent, and to some degree they should,’’ Harris said. “Theirs is the only occupation that has the right to use force against the general public. In that regard, it’s probably appropriate. But at the same time, with technology and social media, there’s a lot more discussion of problems with police, more videos taken and shared. The police themselves, at least the officers I’ve talked to, feel more scrutinized than they ever have been.’’

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: On National Police Week, officers 'feel more scrutinized than ever'