Police Reform: Cops Without Guns

Since the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, police officers have shot many more unarmed African-Americans. In New York City, Akai Gurley was shot in the stairwell of his apartment building. In Phoenix, Rumain Brisbon was shot to death in his home, in front of his wife and children. In Cleveland, John Crawford and 12 year old Tamir Rice were shot while holding toy guns (in an open carry state). In these and many other cases, police turn to their firearm as the first resort instead of the last. In 2014, the police killed 1,000 citizens, dangerous or not.

As this collection of episodes illustrates, the police should not carry firearms, except in exceptional circumstances. This is by no means an outlandish idea: we have several models in the world already. The police forces of Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, and Norway all feature unarmed police patrols.

Unarmed Police

The British police are the forerunners of all modern police forces. Unlike almost any of its successors though, British* police officers do not carry firearms on patrol. Instead, British patrol officers are expected to solve problems through persuasion, moral authority, and, if necessary, their baton or taser. British police prefer remaining unarmed; 82% of British police approved of unarmed patrols.

*Because of the legacy of violence in Northern Ireland, the police there are regularly armed. Also, sadly, Scotland’s new national police service has armed its patrol officers. However, the Scots do not generally support this move.

Unarmed British police capture man wielding machete, with innovative use of recycling bin.

New Zealand’s police have a similar view. When their parliament considered arming their patrol officers in 2009, the New Zealand police commissioner wrote:

I have no doubt that carrying handguns would compromise officers’ ability to do their regular work, because when you carry a weapon, your primary concern is to protect that weapon. If this was balanced by a clearly demonstrable increase in personal protection, it would be a price to consider paying. But the protection offered by a firearm — particularly a pistol — is more illusory than real.

This is not to say that the British or New Zealand police do not have access to firearms. An officer can requisition a firearm in special circumstances. In cases where firearms are needed in an emergency, “authorized firearms officers” are dispatched.

The benefits are clear: British police rarely kill anyone, because they can’t do so (easily). Furthermore, firearms officers are specialists whose sole purpose is firearms control. Perhaps that’s why, despite being dispatched 12,550 times in 2012, firearms officers discharged their weapons only 5 times, with only two fatalities. Unjustified killings still happen, including those based on race. In 2007, firearms officers killed a Brazilian national, Jean Charles de Menezes, in the London Underground. In 2008, Ian Tomlinson was killed in 2009 after being tackled by police. And, as in the United States, the courts are unlikely to convict a killer cop. Yet killings by police officers are much less likely.

The Dangers to Police

Most Americans are reluctant to believe that unarmed policing is applicable to the United States. To begin with, Americans don’t believe any international model of anything can be applied to the United States at all. In this case, there is some justice to the objection. The widespread ownership of guns would seem to make the job of American police very dangerous. The pervasive gun culture seems to justify the shoot-first mentality and overreliance on SWAT teams for serving warrants.

I’m sure that the police officer’s job is very stressful; the police have to intrude into citizen’s lives everyday to enforce the law and most people will resent that. It’s not a job where you see the best side of people. Furthermore, police training emphasizes the possible dangers of dealing with citizens. Training videos feature scene after scene of unexpected, and fatal, assaults. So it’s understandable that police officers might experience anxiety in their work.

The problem is that this sense of danger is an illusion. Being a police officer is not that dangerous of a job. In 2013, 8 in 100,000 police officers were murdered. Half of all police deaths occur in traffic accidents. Granted, any death is one too many. But as occupations go, law enforcement is not even in the top ten most dangerous jobs. Loggers, fishermen, groundskeepers, farmers, metal workers, construction workers, paramedics, and anyone involved in driving for a living all have more deaths on the job than the police (by 2013 data).

Crime itself, especially violent crime, has fallen dramatically across the country (the causes of which are only poorly understood). For whatever reason, Americans are becoming less violent.

This evidence suggests that, we not only can disarm police departments, we should. The extraordinary expansion of the use of SWAT teams and the aggressive, militarized policing of protests already demonstrate that police forces must be stripped of their military toys. But given the increasingly common and irresponsible use of deadly force by police, we should disarm the police as well.

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