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Defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, and former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, speak to Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill on April 19, 2021. (AP) Defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, and former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, speak to Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill on April 19, 2021. (AP)

Defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, and former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, speak to Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill on April 19, 2021. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson June 8, 2021

If Your Time is short

• A paper from 2013 shows dramatically lower life expectancy for police officers than for members of the general public.

• Two other studies have found either no gap in life expectancy or greater life expectancy for police. However, the 2013 paper is both more recent and arguably broader in its scope than the papers showing a contrary result.

After the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of Black resident George Floyd, Chauvin’s attorney asked the judge for a more lenient sentence than the official guidelines would suggest.

In a motion filed June 2, attorney Eric Nelson sought to have Judge Peter Cahill sentence Chauvin to probation plus the time he’s already served in prison awaiting trial or, failing that, a shorter sentence than would be suggested by the guidelines.

One of the justifications Nelson cited in his motion caught the eye of a PolitiFact reader.

"The life expectancy of police officers is generally shorter, and police officers have a significantly higher average probability of death from specific diseases than did males in the general population," Nelson wrote. "Mr. Chauvin is now 44 years old and is nearing the healthier years of his life. He has been preliminarily diagnosed with heart damage and may likely die at a younger age like many ex-law enforcement officers."

A decade ago, we looked at a similar assertion about the life expectancy of police officers and we found no strong evidence to support it. However, academic research published since our 2011 article has provided a stronger foundation for support.

We take no position on the wisdom of a reduced sentence for Chauvin, but we did want to see whether his lawyer’s assertion about police life expectancy is backed by published research. Because the academic research is somewhat contradictory, we are not putting this statement on our Truth-O-Meter.

Nelson cites study of Buffalo police

Nelson cited a paper in his motion that offers some support for his claim. It was published in 2013 by John M. Violanti, a professor in the University at Buffalo’s Department of Social and Preventive Medicine. He co-wrote the paper with four researchers from a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Morgantown, W.Va.

The paper looked at the life expectancy for 2,800 male police officers in Buffalo, N.Y., who spent at least five years on the force between 1950 and 2005. It compared the officers’ life expectancy with that of the overall white male population of the United States. The researchers excluded women and minority officers because they accounted for a small percentage of the potential pool, which would have made it hard to conduct statistically valid comparisons.

According to the study, officers in the study had a "significantly lower" life expectancy than U.S. white men as a whole, with the gap especially large for those at younger ages. 

Specifically, the study found that an officer who lived to age 50 could expect to live only 7.8 additional years, while a typical U.S. white man was expected to live an additional 35 years.

Calculations using a different metric known as the years of potential life lost found a similar disparity. The years of potential life lost for police officers aged 40 to 44 was more than 38 times bigger than it was for the population as a whole, and the average for all age groups was 21 times bigger.

Finally, using a third metric, the study found that a male police officer aged 50 to 54 years had "close to a 40% probability of death compared to a 1% probability for males in the general population in that same age category."

All told, these are dramatic differences.

The study suggested several possible reasons for the disparity in life expectancy, including the stress of the job, shift work (which can disrupt metabolism), obesity (due to increased eating on the job), and environmental work exposures (such as contact with air pollution from working outside in high-traffic areas).

As for Nelson’s assertion that police officers are at higher risk of certain diseases, Violanti’s paper cited earlier studies that came to that conclusion. A 1986 paper he co-authored found that Buffalo police officers had "increased rates for arteriosclerotic heart disease, digestive cancers, cancers of the lymphatic and hematopoietic tissues, brain cancer, and esophageal cancer." These findings were buttressed by a 1998 paper he co-authored. 

Violanti said Nelson characterized his research accurately. However, there are some caveats worth noting.

What are the study’s shortcomings?

First, Violanti’s study acknowledges that while the findings are "suggestive," they should be "interpreted with caution." 

Specifically, the study noted that the sample size was small compared with the total police population nationally, and focused on only one geographic region rather than the whole country. On the other hand, Violanti told PolitiFact that the study captures data from "an average-sized police agency" and a broad time frame, making it "fairly representative."

Bethany Cockburn, an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University’s College of Business, said her main concern with the study is that it didn’t control for other factors that may shape who becomes a police officer but that aren’t necessarily caused by the job, such as a propensity for risk-taking, any pre-existing health conditions, whether the officer is single (since married people tend to live longer), and whether they come from a lower socioeconomic status background (which has a stronger relationship with earlier mortality).

"The research may actually be finding that people who take risks, work long hours, have pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure, and sit long hours have shorter life expectancies — unrelated to the actual position of being a police officer," she said. "We just don’t know."

Earlier research

Meanwhile, some earlier research found no such life expectancy gap between law enforcement officers and other workers.

A 1987 study compared state police retirees to actuarial tables that the state of Illinois had based on the observed lifespans of state employees overall. It found that police officers who retired during a 33-year period were more likely to be alive than other state employees.

And an April 2010 study by the California Public Employees' Retirement System compared life expectancies for male police officers with male workers and retirees who were not in the public safety field. It found that whether a person was 50, 55, 60 or 65, the life expectancy for police officers was similar to that for other workers. 

Violanti said these studies had drawbacks as well. The Illinois study did not take into account officers’ retirement ages, which may have been earlier than the population used to construct the actuarial tables, he said. And the California study only covered 10 years, adding uncertainty to its conclusions.

All in all, while the most recent paper shows a dramatic difference in life expectancy, each of the academic studies have limitations.

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Our Sources

Eric Nelson, sentencing motion on behalf of Derek Chauvin, June 2, 2021

John M. Violanti, et al., "Life Expectancy in Police Officers: A Comparison with the U.S. General Population," (paper in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience), 2013

John M. Violanti, et al., "The Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress (BCOPS) Pilot Study: Design, Methods, and Measurement" (paper in Annals of Epidemiology), 2006

John M. Violanti, et al., "Mortality of a police cohort: 1950-1990" (paper in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine), 1998

R. A. Raub, "Police officer retirement: The beginning of a long life" (National Institute of Justice/National Criminal Justice Reference Service, Rockville, Md.), 1987

California Public Employees' Retirement System, "CalPERS Experience Study 1997-2007," April 2010

Industrial Safety and Hygiene News, "Top 25 most dangerous jobs in the United States," Nov. 5, 2020

PolitiFact, "Retired police captain says law enforcement officers die 10 years earlier than most people," Aug. 14, 2011

Email interview with Bethany Cockburn, assistant professor at Northern Illinois University’s College of Business, June 4, 2021

Email interview with John M. Violanti, professor in the University at Buffalo’s Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, June 4, 2021

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