When global nuclear superpowers confronted the possibility of Armageddon, they began negotiating treaties to decrease the number of weapons and lower the risk of nuclear war. In the wake of a horrible series of police shootings of Black Americans, is it time for our cities to focus on reducing the number of weapons on our streets… starting with the idea that not every single police officer needs to carry a gun?
Think, for a moment, of a time when a belligerent adversary of the United States struck a menacing posture against our nation, threatened to invade one of our long-standing allies, or actually violated the border of a sovereign nation that held strategic importance to the United States. Perhaps you are envisioning Cuba in 1962, Kuwait in 1991, or even Russian troops on the border of Ukraine in 2021.
Now: imagine trying to cope with those incendiary situations and being given only two options for dealing with the adversary: diplomacy, or nuclear attack. Your only choices are to use stern words or to launch thermonuclear missiles that would annihilate the adversary’s major cities in under 20 minutes. Your heart pounds as you monitor your opponent’s every muscle twitch, fully aware that you could misinterpret a benign act and kill millions by mistake.
Diplomacy, or Armageddon.
Now think, for a moment, of the position that our police officers often find themselves in.
A situation can degrade from difficult to dangerous in an instant. In the darkness, a flash of metal can be a knife, a gun, or a cellphone. In that fraction of a second, two options emerge: issuing commands to surrender, and, if ignored, shoot.
Diplomacy, or Armageddon.
In these situations, diplomacy does not always work… if you can call pointing a weapon at someone while screaming at them amidst sirens and flashing lights diplomacy.
In the last six weeks, we’ve established that this approach can prove horribly unfair and devastating to citizens who are on the receiving end of such treatment. For that matter, it is not fair to the police.
On March 29, Chicago Police Officer Eric Stillman fired one shot and killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who had been running away from police called to the scene after reports of gunfire. In the freeze-frame of the Stillman’s body cam, it appears that Toledo had dropped his weapon and raised his arms in surrender at the exact moment that the shot was fired. The video also shows that the officer appears to have had no more than a fraction of a second to make an assessment of the situation’s danger.
It is far from an isolated case. In example after example, the pattern continues.
Through the lens of the Columbus, Ohio Police Officer Nicholas Reardon’s body cam, we see that he is racing at great speed toward an incident unfolding chaotically in real time. We plainly see the knife in the young woman’s hand, and she appears to raise the knife and draw it back over her shoulder, indicating the trajectory of a stabbing motion toward of a young woman pinned up against a parked car. The officer is heard shouting urgently. When the young woman appears to continue her stabbing motion, the officer fires four shots, killing her. The instant analysis: a police officer uses deadly force with a deadly weapon to prevent another human being from using deadly force with a deadly weapon on an innocent person. It appears that the officer’s actions are justified… given the only two choices the officer had.
Through the lens of the officer’s body cam, we witness Duante Wright being killed in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, by Kim Potter, a veteran police officer who instantly appears horrified to realize that she shot him. She seems to have thought that she was holding her taser when she pulled the trigger of her Glock. It appears that in the “fog of war” of a highly charged confrontation, she was unable to distinguish between the taser and the gun, and her error cost a young man his life. If her only weapon had been a taser, she would not have made that error.
In the span of time since I began drafting this post, there have been still more instances of police shooting Black men. Andrew Brown, Jr. was killed by deputies in Elizabeth City, North Carolina on Wednesday, April 21 during an arrest. His family was only allowed to see 20 seconds of police body cam videos, even though eight officers were on the scene with body cams. The video of this killing has not been released. The more that the video evidence appears to be being repressed, the more suspicions rise that incriminating evidence is being withheld. Anger and tension build in the community.
On Sunday, April 25, Isaiah Brown was shot 10 times by a Virginia deputy who mistook Brown’s cell phone for a gun. Watch the body cam video and an audio recording of the 911 call for this shooting in particular. The officer, believing the cell phone is a gun, appears to shout in an increasingly agitated state that Brown should drop a weapon that he does not have. The only remaining choice? Armageddon.
Deaths, lies, and videotape. In the horror of the last six weeks, Derek Chauvin’s crime is actually the outlier: Chauvin committed a cold-blooded intentional murder, involving no gun. Every bit as shocking as Chauvin’s sociopathy was the willing participation of three other policemen in cold-blooded murder. Thanks to a gutsy teenager who pointed a powerful but completely non-lethal weapon at the four cops – a smart phone -- America’s eyes were opened to the gut-wrenching reality of why Black Americans live in terror of police.
But the other situations described above did all involve guns, and did not appear to involve Chauvin-grade sociopaths. Indeed, in several of those situations police officers may now be living in regret and doubt about a split second life and death decision in which they chose Armageddon.
Of this there is no doubt: there needs to be an enormous reckoning in the United States as we seek to understand the extent that systemic racism in law enforcement is behind these constant, endlessly repeated incidents of excessive law enforcement gun violence against Black Americans.
Addressing that issue will be a monumental task. It will take a huge commitment of time, investigation, and resources simply to measure its scope. This will be followed by a period of understanding how to address the problem, which is turn will be followed by the huge task of rooting out racism, retraining police, and determining new guidelines. This will take years. We cannot wait.
With this many questionable shootings in such a short span of time, we can’t justify continuing a “business as usual” approach. Because it sure feels like with this “business as usual,” someone usually gets killed.
We cannot wait because the issue of systemic racism is not the only issue at play in the last six weeks of shootings. It appears that America’s gluttonous abundance of guns causes every cop to assume that every time he or she responds to an emergency call, the suspect – Black or White – may be carrying a gun. And we all know that every police officer has a gun. Every encounter is a time bomb with a ten second timer. We may well have a racism problem, but that problem is on steroids because of our gun problem.
We have to do something. Now.
Today, we offer a different approach to addressing this issue in the near term.
It may be instructive to return to the analogy of global conflict. In the Cuban missile crisis, brilliant diplomacy worked. But the true lasting impact of that enormous threat to the survival of humanity was the initiation of dialog and agreements to limit mankind’s ability to commit mass suicide. One of the very first steps: the installation of a phone that instantly linked Washington and Moscow in the belief that urgent, effective communication would be the best defense against catastrophe. Interestingly, in the span of the next 30 years, over 20 treaties were signed aimed at limiting or reducing the number of atomic bombs, limiting the number of countries that could have access to nuclear weapons, and restricting where and how nuclear devices could be tested.
We’ve learned a great deal since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only two instances in which nuclear bombs were used in warfare against civilian populations. We have learned how to navigate a world of intense conflict, bitter rivalry, and heavy armaments without resorting to the use of nuclear weapons.
Since 1945, the nations of the earth have managed to avoid using nuclear weapons in war. Make no mistake: these weapons remain a constant threat to our survival -- and yet they serve an important purpose. The notion of mutually assured destruction makes the use of a nuclear bomb an act of both genocide and suicide. Ironically, today the greatest potency of nuclear weapons is found in the power of never using them.
Because they are the option of truly final resort, we have learned a seemingly infinite continuum of proportional responses to resolve disputes without sending nuclear missiles flying. We have learned that clear, measured, and urgent communication can prevent catastrophe. We have built decision processes and safety checks to prevent unthinkable nuclear accidents. And yes, we conduct wars… with brutal weaponry, precision targeting, and shocking impact. But even these tactics are part of a continuum that enable our military leaders to wage war without resorting to nuclear holocaust. These weapons, too, are part of the continuum of proportional response that keeps nuclear missiles in their silos.
In short, one reason humanity continues to exist on this planet is because thoughtful people engaged in intense dialog to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, restrict access to those weapons, and limit the likelihood that they would be used by mistake.
Could our municipalities and their police departments learn a lesson about the effectiveness of de-escalation?
The essence of our policing problem in the United States is that the use of firearms does not appear to be a court of final resort… a method of handling a situation when everything else has been tried and failed. We do not seem to view shooting a gun to be the equivalent of firing a nuclear weapon at an individual person, even though the outcome for that one individual is exactly the same. We do not seem to factor in the calculus the possibility of an error, and that if an error has been made, it cannot be corrected. We do not seem to offer our police officers enough options so that there is a measured continuum of potential responses between diplomacy and Armageddon for one human being.
Far from diffusing tension, it seems that police policies escalate the inherent dangers in an encounter with a civilian. Flashing strobe lights and screaming sirens make ordinary people feel enormous stress. In a number of the bodycam videos we have seen, it is actually the police officers who are screaming at the top of their lungs, appearing to not be fully in control of their own faculties, and exacerbating the sense of imminent danger.
Finally, of course, there needs to be an awareness that the mere possession of a gun is inevitably going to make a situation more stressful to everyone involved… and that taking that gun out the holster is going to terrify anybody within range. When a gun comes out, everyone starts screaming – no doubt increasing the officer’s sense that a situation is spiraling out of control. The very presence of the gun intensifies the stakes of the confrontation – thereby increasing the odds that the gun will be used to used in order to bring the situation “under control.”
Are guns really essential to law enforcement? Some simple facts from Wikipedia are intriguing: “generally, all law enforcement officers in the United States are armed with semi-automatic pistols at a minimum,” while the “the police force in England and Wales do not routinely carry firearms.”
How about this statistic, which gets to the issue of how law enforcement officers themselves feel about carrying deadly weapons… again, from Wikipedia: “a 2006 poll of 47,328 members of the Police Federation of England and Wales found that 82% do not want officers to be routinely armed while on duty.” That is to say: four out of five officers in the U.K. really don’t want the danger and perhaps the life and death responsibility of carrying a gun.
You may consider the following to be trivializing a terribly serious point, but ponder this: everyone knows that the “00” prefix in James Bond “007” code name means that he is “licensed to kill.” The point is this: in the U.K., you have to be a highly trained, highly trusted agent in the MI6 to be designated as having the authority to kill someone.
By contrast, in the United States, every 22-year-old graduate of a police academy essentially is granted this “00” clearance the moment they join a department. Every police officer in America has a “license to kill.” We have 697,195 James Bonds wandering our streets, with both the authority and the weaponry to kill people.
The reasonable inference would therefore be that violent crime must be out of control in the U.K., since the police do not have guns to keep order.
Well, uh, no. The number of murders per million people in the U.K is 11.68. In the United States, the number is 42.01… about four times higher.
It seems inevitable at this point that some reader will point out that our cops need guns because there are so many more guns in the United States than in the U.K., and boy is that ever true. We have 393,347,000 in civilian hands in the United States, or 120.5 guns for every 100 people. England and Wales have 2,731,000, or 4.6 guns per 100 people. So yes, we definitely have more guns that England.
This is a phenomenon I cannot explain and it is not the ambition of this essay to provide the answer. I do not know how police in the U.K. confront armed robbers. I do not know the legal, cultural, and historical reasons why gun ownership and use for law enforcement varies so wildly between the U.S. and U.K. That is the topic for a wholly separate analysis. All that I know is that the statistics on these measures between the United States and the U.K. are essentially mirrored opposites, indicating wholly different approaches, with wildly different results.
And I prefer the numbers coming out of the U.K.
The question is what, exactly, do you conclude from these statistics?
Is the answer to give our cops more guns, or to have fewer guns in the hands of both police and civilians? What we always hear is just a variant on the old saw that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is more good guys carrying guns. It was this logic that led the NRA to recommend that the solution to our mass murder epidemic in schools is to give every teacher a gun. In the United States, more guns seems to be the answer to everything.
Forget about nuclear disarmament deals with Russia – all by itself, the United States is an out-of-control domestic arms race.
How come it is so hard for Americans to imagine that the path to fewer shootings is to have fewer guns… for everyone?
So let’s start with a radical idea, and then offer an approach to understanding if it would work.
Let’s try less guns. Let’s not de-fund the police, let’s de-gun the police.
This is not a suggestion of a unilateral action that puts police at increased risk. It would be treaty, and would begin with a negotiation: the police will reduce their weaponry if the civilian population they are paid to protect does its part to reduce the number of guns, the power of the guns, and restrict access to the guns. It must be a domestic Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty between the civilians in a geographic area and the police who are hired to protect them.
Let’s try radically reducing the number of police officers who carry guns. Let’s reduce the number of guns in police work. Let’s make a rule that only a small number of highly trained, highly qualified, highly tested, highly experienced police officers get to carry a gun. Only an elite group is given a “license to kill.”
For the rest of them, let’s take the nuclear option off the table. Let’s not require a 22-year-old to have to choose in a tenth of a second whether to kill a 15-year-old. Let’s build a continuum of proportional response. Sure, give every police officer a powerful new Taser. The effective range of Taser model X26 (preferred for police work) is 35 feet. That really ought to give the police a fully effective weapon for the vast majority of encounters.
Let’s equip police with those cool night vision glasses from “Zero Dark Thirty” so we enable them to tell the difference between a gun and cell phone on a moonless night.
Heck, let’s put the innovators in Silicon Valley to work on developing a range of non-lethal weapons that are more effective than tasers… weapons with greater range, more precision targeting, and are capable of rapid re-use. We spend billions developing robots that our military can use to send into caves in Afghanistan… how come we can't spend some of that money to develop technology for safer policing here at home?
Perhaps most important, let’s do everything we can to teach police officers how to diffuse a situation rather than exacerbate it.
Is it possible that fewer guns could be the first step toward the much needed rebuilding of trust between law enforcement and the civilian community?
Interesting fact: less than 10% of police responses involve a violent crime. In other studies, that number is as low as 1%. In many cases, emergency calls that go into 911 require wholly different expertise than the police are trained to provide. Perhaps the term that is more accurate than “de-fund the police” is to “re-make” the police… to re-invest certain dollars expended for policing on other forms of social service that the police are currently being asked to provide… dealing with mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness, and inadequate medical care. Or even spend that money to retrain police officers on the best way to deal with the societal problems that land in their responsibility by default.
But this cannot a unilateral disarmament on the part of the police. It is a negotiated treaty. Both sides must make concessions. There must be a comprehensive effort to de-gun the civilian population as well.
It must be a concerted effort by local legislators, community leaders, and mothers and fathers who are weary of raising their children in fear and danger. They must work in concert and with the police to take on the issue of rooting out the excessive and illegal weapons in the hands of private citizens. If our citizens want safer cities, they must be willing to do their part.
The municipality must legislate that all combat style weapons within the geography must be surrendered. Government should grant amnesty periods for the surrender of illegal guns and allocate funds to purchase guns from citizens who are willing to give up their legal gun. Every single gun owner should be required to re-register their gun in the exact same way we currently regulate car ownership: all must be registered and insured, and the owners must be licensed. Guns must have locking devices or be locked with access restricted to the registered owner of the weapon. Penalties for owning or carrying an unregistered firearm should be on the level of a felony with a minimum jail sentence. You know, treat illegal gun owners and would-be murderers as if they were doing something as bad as, say, selling drugs
Now, here’s where we show just how reasonable our proposal really is.Here is our modest proposal: let’s implement a test.
You know… a test market. Like what makers of powdered soft drinks and dishwasher detergent do. Instead of spending the millions of dollars on a national launch of a new flavor or new cleaner, they simply offer the new product in a few metro markets to find out if the demand justifies the expense of a national launch. It’s smart business.
Let’s find three cities that are fed up with business as usual who would be willing to be the test market for our Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Let’s have the Federal government pay for the test… pay for police to be retrained, re-equipped, and evaluated by different criteria of success.
In our test, certain officers should certainly still carry
guns. They would be an elite group within the department that has the
experience, temperament, and expertise to handle guns – and the type of
dangerous, out-of-control situations in which they are necessary. Yes, they
would be the real James Bonds. But no
one is saying that we send unarmed officers out into hazard zones unprotected: give
them all the best tasers and non-lethal weapons available. And no officer will go out on his beat without a gun until the local population has made a demonstrable, measurable reduction in the number of civilian guns.
Then – just like Proctor & Gamble would – read the test. After a year, review the results and report the findings. How many violent crimes have been committed? How many gun deaths have occurred? How many citizens have died in encounters with the police? Has the level of trust and cooperation between the police and the community improved or declined? Develop comprehensive metrics, and then compare the test areas against the rest of the United States.
If the result of the test areas are comparable to or better than the rest of the country on key measures like murders and police violence, expand the test to more markets. Prove that it works, and then roll it out. Just like Proctor & Gamble.
Sure, it would be tough to do. It wouldn’t be perfect. You can hypothesize a million reasons why it wouldn’t work.
Somebody is going to read this essay and tell me now naïve I am, and how stupid this idea is, and maybe even try to offer an explanation for why what works in the U.K. could never work here.
Please. Tell me. We are so like the U.K. in everything else. We both like “The Office.” We both like the Beatles. We both think Prince Charles is a wimp and that David Beckham is cool. We both think Sean Connery is the best 007. Please explain why our police need Glocks and their Bobbies get by with nightsticks.
Sure, tell me my idea stinks, but that you have a better idea. You have a better way of ensuring that more unarmed Black men in the United States don’t find themselves in a dark alley with a twenty-two year-old cop whose only options are diplomacy and an atom bomb, and who believes that he is licensed to kill.
Tell me your idea.
Because I can tell you as a matter of certainty that what we are doing now does not work.
It is incredibly ironic that our system of justice is designed so that it takes a two-week jury trial with a unanimous verdict to send a murderer in a police uniform to prison, but all it takes to end the life of an innocent Black man is one cop with one-tenth of a second to make an erroneous judgment.
Come on, America. Yes, we have a hideous gun problem, but perhaps it is time to acknowledge an even worse problem: we do not appear to have the will to fix it. We do not reach a sufficient level of outrage until the murdered child is someone we know.
I have written a number of
columns about our national gun disease, and every time I do, I end up
predicting that nothing will change. Nothing changed after Newtown.
Nothing changed after Las Vegas. Nothing changed after Parkland. And now, nothing will change after Columbus, Chicago, Brooklyn Center, North Carolina, and Virginia unless we, the people, demand change and figure out how to do it.
Don't like my idea? Nobody is making you try it. The bet is that there are three metropolitan areas out there that realize that business as usual is usually a disaster, and would be willing to try a different approach. You can just test this idea...just like Proctor & Gamble.
Have a better idea than mine? Let's hear it.
Let's test doing something.
Because the alternative -- doing nothing -- has already been tested.
It has already been proven to be a miserable failure.
Nothing doesn't work. Let's give something a chance.
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