A man jumped out of the car. He was a big guy, mid-40’s maybe—bald and wearing a white t-shirt and jeans. He was about 25 feet away, and totally amped up. He had a gun pressed against his right temple. His eyes were wild, like a cornered animal. My partner and I pulled our Glocks and took aim. He demanded that we back off or he’d shoot himself.
“Get out of here,” he screamed. “I’ll do it, I’m serious!”
I called for him to drop his weapon. From my left, my partner did the same. I noticed that the pitch of her voice was just a bit higher than it had been a few moments before. I don’t think she was in a panic, but it was pretty clear to me that she was nervous. Hell, I was nervous. The guy might blow his own head off, or turn the gun on us at any moment. Neither of us wanted to shoot him.
Then time slowed down for me. I became hyper-aware, my senses turned up, like someone had jacked my dial to 10. Tunnel vision. My finger pressed harder against the trigger guard. 5.5 pounds of pressure and about a third of a second was all that was keeping me from ending this guy. At eight meters, I wouldn’t miss.
He grew more agitated. His voice rose and grew more frantic. Then he raised the gun straight up from his temple, pointing it toward the sky.
My partner blew his ass away.
Today is October 19th, 2015. As of the moment I write this, 922 people have died at the hands of police in this country, this year alone. In just a handful of hours, that number will almost certainly be 923.
Last year, 1106 people died at the hands of cops. If we continue at this pace, this year will again top 1100. From May to December of 2013: 748.
I want you to think about that for a minute…
In roughly two and a half years, as many people will have died at the hands of police as did in the attacks on 9/11.
Nearly 3000 lives lost.
The worst year of US casualties in Iraq: 904. In Afghanistan: 499. That’s right. Our police are killing more people on American soil than die in active war zones. Often, significantly more.
There have been 47 lethal-force deaths in England over the past 95 years, and only one so far this year.
In Germany: one this year, and one last.
In Australia: just six in 2014
In Norway: there hasn’t been a single police-related killing in nearly ten years
In Iceland: only one in nearly 71 years.
In 2013, police in Finland fired a grand total of 6 bullets. In the US that same year, a single suspect with a rock was fired upon 17 times.
Contrary to what you may believe from the early content of this post, I am not anti-police. I can’t say enough that the vast majority of cops are some of the bravest and best among us, protecting us from the absolute worst among us. Their jobs are sometimes dangerous. They don their uniforms despite the understanding that they may not make it home to their families. There’s a reason why kids so often want to be cops when they grow up—to them, they’re real-life, honest-to-goodness heroes. Without law enforcement, society would surely collapse into chaos and anarchy. We need them. And they need and deserve our respect and cooperation.
But they are also human beings. Prone to all of the same injuries, insecurities, emotions, prejudices and even instabilities and errors in judgment that plague the rest of us. A badge is not a mystical talisman that makes them superhuman. It is not a shield of invulnerability. They are people, just like you and I, sometimes placed in high-intensity scenarios that call for split-second, life-or-death decisions. They make mistakes. And occasionally those mistakes prove fatal.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting deadly force is never justifiable. There are “imminent danger” scenarios, in which I would support an officer’s decision to discharge their weapons. If lives are at grave, immediate risk, then I get it. Truly, I do. That said, shooting an unarmed, fleeing suspect when no one else is around? That’s murder in my book, whether you’re a coked-up thug or an adrenalin-amped cop.
But what is it that makes our society so much more susceptible to death at the hands of those we trust to serve and protect us? With that question in mind, I decided to see if I could find some answers. What I discovered is that there’s no single, obvious solution—no silver bullet. But there are a handful of factors that seem to play a part.
Socioeconomics/Income Inequality: Operating under the assumption that less crime equals fewer encounters with law enforcement and thus fewer opportunities for lethal force to be an issue, I took a look at crime rates in other countries. While researching statistics in Iceland, I came across an article (here) about a man whose thesis was on the subject of the lack of violence and crime there (there was only one intentional homicide in 2014). This is despite the fact that nearly a third of its population is armed. One of his conclusions is that the overall economic and social equality in the country is a primary reason—97% of the population considers themselves to be middle income or working class. At first blush, this would suggest that the current economic gap in the U.S. might be partly to blame—but is this indicative of the whole, or merely an aberration?
I discovered something called the GINI Index, which is a tool used to measure income distribution. In the simplest of terms, the lower the number, the closer that country is to perfect “income equality.” When compared alongside the intentional homicide rates*, there is a very suggestive correlation between the two: the smaller the GINI coefficient, the more likely that country is to have a lower intentional homicide rate. To use the above countries as examples, Iceland’s GINI Index is one of the lowest at 24. Finland is around 28. Norway, 27. Sweden, 26. Germany, 31. Australia and England come in at around 34 and 38, respectively. The U.S. income coefficient is nearly 41. Conversely, countries with extremely high GINI’s like Brazil (53), Honduras (57) and South Africa (63) all have higher intentional homicide rates than we do here in America. Obviously, there are exceptions and outliers, but generally speaking, it certainly appears that there is a parallel between income inequality, unrest and violent crime. And violent crime means more police in positions where they might encounter deadly force situations.
Arming/Militarization of Police: As one might logically expect, there are far fewer police-involved killings in countries where the police don’t carry guns at all: England, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand and Ireland are among those that don’t (except in exceptional circumstances). But as we’ve seen, violent crime itself is also much lower in those countries as well (our intentional homicide rates are five times higher than those of New Zealand and Ireland, in case you were wondering). But whether those lower violent crime statistics are part of the reason that police don’t need to be armed, or a product of it, is a line of inquiry worth examining. Put another way—is a society less violent when their police don’t carry guns, or is it inherently less violent to begin with?
With the rise of police killings in America, it seems that there has been a fundamental breakdown in our trust of the police, and respectively, theirs of us. If people are afraid that police might use excessive force against them, might they then be more apt to act aggressively? And if people act more aggressively, does it stand to reason that police, concerned for their own safety, might use more force than necessary? Does being armed, in and of itself, engender a self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling cycle of violence? Does violence (or the very threat of it) beget more violence?
I’m not necessarily championing the idea that police in the U.S. shouldn’t have firearms, but there is a case to be made for moving in that direction. Since 1997, our government has been issuing surplus military equipment and weapons to our police departments. Unfortunately, FBI statistics are woefully incomplete on the subject, so it’s hard to assess whether or not this has had a direct impact on the amount of violence perpetuated by police, but it certainly seems like it has. Some would argue this “militarization” allows them to be more prepared and able to respond to any situation. Others wonder if it just further perpetuates the mistrust between the public and their police. And it isn’t as if police don’t have a number of (typically) non-lethal weapons and tactics available to them: backup, batons, mace, tasers, flashlights, fists. Most are trained in self-defense, and/or hand to hand combat. Even an uncooperative suspect doesn’t deserve to be brutalized, and certainly not shot and killed. The primary objective should always be to apprehend and subdue first, and then escalate only as much as the situation requires. More on this in a minute.
Gun Culture: There are very nearly as many guns as people now in this country. I’m a gun owner myself. We know from Iceland’s proliferation of firearms (fifteenth in the world) that it’s not simply a matter of the weapons themselves. But Iceland does have extremely strict regulations in place. Most of their guns are used for hunting. Very few people own handguns. This is in stark contrast to gun control policies in the U.S., where there are a variety of ways to skirt background checks, and where proficiency exams, transfer paperwork, and medical/mental health screenings aren’t required in most states.
The prevalence of guns in America goes right back to the issue of trust. As much as we need to be able to trust police, they too, have to be able to do their jobs without fearing the very citizens they’re tasked to serve and protect. Armed with the knowledge that anyone might have a weapon, police are sure to be more cautious and on edge and they are more likely to act more severely if questioned or challenged.
I’ve had several people contend that cops must go into every scenario believing that they might be killed. I find this to be not only ludicrous, but also an irresponsible and dangerous mindset. My position is that police must always go into every situation alert, prepared, (and perhaps most importantly) calm. If every officer constantly believes they are about to be shot and their adrenalin is flowing as if they’re taking their last breaths, there are sure to be bad outcomes.
The screen went dark and the sim ended. My partner had shot the suspect twice, once in the head and once in the chest. My finger had never left the trigger guard.
Our instructor deemed it a justified shooting. The suspect had made a sudden movement, and my partner was scared. It rang hollow and felt flimsy to me. I mean, I get that she was scared. I was too. But I felt like I had all the time in the world to make that life-or-death decision. The gun never swung toward us at all. He might have been preparing to throw it down on the ground. He might have surrendered. But now we’ll never know. Because that guy is dead. My partner killed him.
This story is important to me because I learned a few things during that shoot/don’t shoot simulation. The first is that we are all different and will therefore react to these kinds of high-pressure scenarios differently. While everything came into perfect focus for me, my partner’s fear drove her to a split second reaction that I didn’t have. Part of that is training. I’ve fired a gun many times and consider myself highly proficient at that distance. I was confident that I had plenty of time to make and enact the right decision. She was not as confident. Training—repetitive situational training, until one’s responses and reactions become almost reflexive—might help that to some degree. But when it’s not a laser sensitive screen and the people and guns are real, I’m sure it’s a very different thing. Instinctive survival mechanisms kick in. A conscious effort must be made to combat the flight-or-flight response. You can bet there will be adrenalin flowing. Until you’re put in that scenario, there’s no way to know how you might react. But I suspect, just like with my partner and me, some will act upon action and others will act upon their fear.
That’s another thing I learned. In being told that the threshold for a “righteous” shooting was fearing for my life, I realized that threshold sits on a very nebulous and sliding scale. It will be different for all cops, based on their training, experiences, confidence, focus and control. And how can anyone be expected to judge an officer’s level of “fear” in a given situation? We must provide more tangible, measurable criteria as to when use of force is justifiable. I’ve heard many times that cops are “held to a higher standard,” but as it pertains to shootings and brutality, that’s not true at all. If any citizen shot a fleeing, unarmed man in the back after a struggle, they’d almost certainly face Murder Two charges. Police, on the other hand, are rarely indicted (much less prosecuted) as their actions are considered within the realm of their duties. But if we are to judge those actions, there must be some way for us to know the circumstances that led to them. Enter body cams. In my view this is an obvious solution, as it provides protection for both citizens and law enforcement alike. If we were able to see the circumstances that led to an officer’s use of force, then we would be in a much better position to determine whether or not their decisions were justified.
I was also told that officers are permitted to be one degree of threat beyond that of a suspect at any given time. One. If a perpetrator is holding a knife for example, I can have a projectile Taser, or failing that, a gun. If they have a gun in their waistband, I can have my gun in hand. If they have a gun in hand which is not aimed at me, I can have my weapon trained on them. One degree. If that is indeed true, then I must admit some confusion as to how 187 of this year’s victims were shot while unarmed. How does one man with a rock end up with 200 grams of lead inside of him? How does a teenager with no weapon facing multiple officers wind up shot to death?
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m armchair quarterbacking here. There’s no way I can comprehend every complexity of every scenario—maybe it’s too much to even say that I can comprehend the complexity of any scenario. I’m not a cop. But I am a human being. A human being without extensive training on how to react to potentially dangerous situations. A human being without a number of non-lethal weapons at my disposal. A human being without self-defense, or hand-to-hand combat training. I’m at a disadvantage in all of those ways. And even so, I can’t see myself shooting an unarmed, fleeing suspect in the back several times. If I’m honest about it, I don’t believe my sim partner should have taken those shots. Our suspect did not pose an immediate threat to either of us or anyone else for that matter. A danger, perhaps—but not an imminent threat. And in my view, that must be the measure of every lethal force scenario—are lives in grave peril right now? This very second? If the answer is no, then there are still other options on the table and it is the responsibility of police to work toward a non-violent resolution.
This issue is clearly very complex. I believe at its heart lie economic factors that are rooted in our society that will not change easily or quickly. I also think the militarization of law enforcement coupled with a lack of reasonable gun ownership regulations has created an escalating pattern of violent outcomes with police over the past several years. But perhaps most to blame is the profound erosion of trust between police and citizens. Thanks to the media, we forget that the vast majority of police are good people who have a potentially dangerous job to do. And every now and again, they forget that we’re not at war with one another. Our lives don’t matter less or more than theirs, and their job is to preserve life—all life—if at all possible.
I do think that cops in the U.S. are sometimes too quick to resort to deadly force when there are other alternatives available to them. I feel that there needs to be a tangible hierarchy of police tactics and responses and exhaustive re-training of our law enforcement officers in those procedures. Then someday, if we’re smart enough to endeavor for more equality (in all of its forms) and start reducing our reliance on firepower as a solution, I believe we can begin to restore the kind of trust we see in Norway and Australia and England. Places where police related killings are the rare exception and where cops who don’t even carry guns still feel perfectly safe among the people they serve.
*I chose to use intentional homicide rates as a measure here because it is static and means the same thing in all countries, whereas “violent crime” has different definitions in other countries and cannot be compared quite so easily.
The Counted (The Guardian)
GINI Index (Quandl)
Crime Statistics (NationMaster)
Police Use of Force: The Impact of Less-Lethal Weapons and Tactics (Philip Bulman, NIJ)
5 Countries Where Police Officers Do Not Carry Firearms—and it Works Well (Rick Noack, Washington Post)