Do Police Officers Really Have Shorter Lifespans?

On May 25, 2020, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered Black resident George Floyd by pinning his knee on Floyd's neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, during which Floyd pleaded to let him breathe 25 times (via the U.S. Department of Justice). While the statutory maximum is life, Chauvin was ultimately sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison on June 25, 2021, for his crime, according to AP News.

The sentence was shorter than the three-decade sentence prosecutors had requested. Per PolitiFact, Chauvin's attorney Eric Nelson asked the case's judge for a reduction in Chauvin's prison sentence based in part on the fact that Chauvin was 45 years old at the time. Police officers tend to have a shorter life expectancy, Nelson wrote in a motion filed before the sentencing on June 2, 2021, and a "significantly higher average probability of death from specific diseases than did males in the general population."

Diving into the statistics

Nelson's motion spurred an investigation into whether police officers actually do have a shorter life expectancy than others in the population. Although this case represented one of the longest prison terms handed down to a police officer that killed a Black person in the U.S., Chauvin could still be released from prison on parole with good behavior after 15 years, according to AP News

To see how valid Nelson's claim was, PolitiFact took a look at what we know from the scientific literature about life expectancy in public safety employees. In 2011, PolitiFact had previously examined the claim that police officers died earlier than the general population in relation to an argument made by a retired police captain, Robert Barber, in which he said he deserved a better retirement package due to his shorter life expectancy. "Statistically," Barber said, "law-enforcement officers die 10 years earlier than the general population" (via PolitiFact).

Do police officers have higher rates of diseases?

Barber cited two papers when asked by PolitiFact to support his claim. The first was a Reuters Health account that didn't look at life expectancy directly, but rather a cardiovascular problem. The relatively small 2009 study of some 300 people published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found police officers compared to the general population had thicker arterial walls in their necks, which is a sign of a predisposition to heart disease.

Supporting Nelson's claim that police officers are more likely to die from "specific diseases" than males in the general population, one 1986 paper published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine sampling a group of police officers in Buffalo, New York found increased rates of "arteriosclerotic heart disease, digestive cancers, cancers of the lymphatic and hematopoietic tissues, brain cancer, and esophageal cancer." Another study of Iowa police officers from the 1990s ​​found increased rates of diabetes, body mass index, and tobacco use, which could contribute to a shorter life expectancy as well (via Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine).

Do police officers have a lower life expectancy?

Barber also cited a 2002 report written by a Michigan police department that said "Solid research has shown the life expectancy, after retirement, of a police officer is much shorter than that of the general population." However, this 24-page report provided no scientific evidence to support this claim (via PolitiFact).

That led PolitiFact to go searching for their own evidence. What they found actually showed the reverse to be true. In a 2010 study in California of 1.6 million people, the life expectancies of police officers were actually higher than male workers who had not been employed in public safety. Another 1987 study in Iowa also found former police officers were more likely to live longer than other state employees (via U.S. Department of Justice). Finally, a third 2006 analysis in Oregon similarly found that police officers showed "little difference in life expectancy" when compared to school workers and other public employees (per PolitiFact).

Revisiting Nelson's claim

Just a couple of years after the 2011 fact check, a new study was published in the National Institutes of Health that added new evidence to the mix. In 2013, researchers found the life expectancy of police officers to be 22 years lower than the general population (via PolitiFact). Such a stark difference in life expectancies — roughly 38 times higher for the general population than cops — supports Nelson's claim. Still, it contrasts against much of what was found in the other studies that came before it.

Police work can be stressful as officers are often made to rush into dangerous situations involving domestic or other forms of violence, according to LRIS. Many police forces are also not connected to proper mental health resources, which can have negative impacts on health, per LRIS. Similarly, the 2013 study cited the stressors of the job like witnessing violence, shift work disrupting metabolism, and environmental exposures to air pollution from driving so much as possible explanations for the reduced life expectancy of police officers (via PolitiFact).

Fact or fiction?

Like most scientific research, the 2013 study that found such a big difference in life expectancies didn't come without shortcomings and limitations. Although the data is "fairly" representative of the police population, it was focused in a single geographic area and included a representative sample — and not all U.S. — police officers, the study author told PolitiFact. It also didn't control for other factors that could be influencing the conclusions, like pre-existing health conditions before entering the labor force, marital status, or income (via PolitiFact).

Altogether the data is conflicting. On one hand, the most recent study strongly suggests police officers have a lower life expectancy than people in other occupations, and not by a small degree. And one can imagine the job requirements of a police officer might lead to increased stressors that introduce disease and, consequently, death. However, this goes against much of the prior research in this field, which has found the opposite to be true. The data is so contradictory that PolitiFact didn't put the claim on its Truth-O-Meter and wasn't able to get a firm answer on whether Nelson's claim was fact or fiction. Regardless, it appears Chauvin was given a reduced sentence based at least partly for this reason.