Most Americans probably take it for granted that police officers carry guns; after all, how else could they protect and serve the public? But given the high incidence of police killings, many are wondering if armed law enforcement does more harm than good — or at the very least, if it is even necessary.
As a recent article in Quartz points out, several countries, such as Finland, Germany, and Spain, heavily restrict an officer’s ability to fire his or her weapon, while other go even further and prohibit their police from carrying guns — namely Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom.
In the case of New Zealand and the U.K., law enforcement were stripped of firearms as far back as the late 19th century, under the justification that armed police are “antithetical to the values of civil society” and undermine their “authority to protect, not to oppress, the public.” For its part, Iceland, where one third of the population owns guns, reasoned that disarming officers helps to keep the peace “by consent, rather than through the explicit threat or use of force”.
All that is fairly fascinating reasoning, but how does it work in practice?
Well for starters, most of these countries have low crime rates, and what comparatively little crime does occur is usually nonviolent. So addressing the root socioeconomic and cultural causes of crime and violence would probably go a long way towards eventually making armed law enforcement unjustifiable.
Nevertheless, violence still can and does occur in these countries, and police are trained to anticipate and respond to such incidents, up to and including using a firearm during certain situations (such as a report of an armed suspect). Therein lies the core distinction between the U.S. and nations with unarmed law enforcement:
Paul Hirschfield, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University, points out that U.S. police officers are trained for an average of just 19 weeks. Compare that to police in Norway, who have three years of training before they’re fully qualified.
“If you only have 19 weeks of training, you’re going to spend those on the most essential things. Unfortunately, in the United States, it’s about what you need to defend yourself. How you’re going to avoid getting hurt”, says Hirschfield. “If you have three years, you can also learn how to protect people, how to avoid these situations from arising in the first place. It fosters a whole different orientation and culture in law enforcement.”
Police in other countries are generally trained to de-escalate hostile situations and use minimal violence in response to a threat.
In other words, the lack of weaponry basically forces officers to find nonviolent solutions to emergency situations, using violence only as an absolute last resort (and again, usually with a select unit of armed specialists deployed strictly for such a purpose). This is in line with several other studies finding that unarmed police help to deescalate situations and build mutual trust between law enforcement and the community.
Another article published in Quartz earlier this year explored this idea:
Gregory Smithsimon, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, argued in a recent article at metro politics that arming police tends to feed violent interactions in marginalized communities. “Police demand respect, civilians resent disrespect, and interactions become confrontations that escalate into mistreatment, abuse, and violence,” Smithsimon writes. Pointing to the example of St. Louis police officer Darren Wilson, Smithsimon notes that the addition of weaponry can accelerate confrontation. “Wilson could have continued on his way,” he says. “But the gun on his hip gave him the possibility to escalate with Michael Brown.”
uns aren’t just a danger in and of themselves. They enable a policing philosophy built on violence and forced compliance, rather than one founded on respect, trust and consent. That philosophy affects every police interaction, even those that don’t involve actual shooting.
“Even if disarming the police only reduced police shootings and not other police homicides, it would be a historic improvement,” Smithsimon tells Quartz. “But I suspect that taking guns out of the equation in police officers’ everyday interactions would improve police-civilian relations, like the kind that Eric Garner experienced repeatedly.” Garner sold loose cigarettes on the street in New York and was frequently hassled by police. In July 2014, he was killed when officers put him in a choke hold.
“U.S. police wearing their gun all the time has an important ideological effect,” Smithsimon tells Quartz. “It makes police feel like they are never civilians, never normal people, that they’re always cops, and that they’re never safe without a gun. I don’t think that’s the most productive frame of mind for civilians who are charged with keeping our cities safe and calm.”
So even in societies that are not as small, homogenous, and peaceful as Iceland or Norway, disarming police can ostensibly work.
However, selling this idea to both governments and the public is a whole other story. With so many millions of guns out there (both legal and illegal), and a high (though declining) rate of violent crime, the thought of policing with firearms sounds absurd — which is why no local government, let alone a state or federal institution, has ever seriously considered this approach; even the smallest and seemingly most peaceable towns employ at least a handful of armed officers.
Indeed, an article in The Conversation that also explores the disparity in the U.S. and European policing found that the “brutalization” process runs both ways: just as armed police may elicit fear, distrust, and hostility among the community, an armed and violent citizenry only reinforces police officers’ willingness to turn to violence.
Acquiring guns illegally in the US is not much harder. About 57% of this year’s deadly force victims to date were allegedly armed with actual, toy or replica guns. American police are primed to expect guns. The specter of gun violence may make them prone to misidentifying or magnifying threats like cellphones and screwdrivers. It may make American policing more dangerous and combat-oriented. It also fosters police cultures that emphasize bravery and aggression.
Americans armed with less-lethal weapons like knives – and even those known to be unarmed – are also more likely to be killed by police.
Less-lethal weapon holders make up only about 20% of deadly force victims in the US. Yet the rates of these deaths alone exceed total known deadly force rates in any European country.
The article also cites endemic racism, hyper-individualism, and deeply rooted resentment towards government as reasons why both government officials and the public at large seem so tolerant of and aggressive police tactics. Racism is perhaps the most commonly identified culprit, although it does not account for the fact that even white Americans are far more likely to die from police shootings than their counterparts across the Atlantic, or why deadly encounters with law enforcement are high in mostly white areas like Montana, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
Therein lies another surprising and novel culprit: the localized nature of most policing in the U.S.
Each of America’s 15,500 municipal and county departments is responsible for screening applicants, imposing discipline and training officers when a new weapon like Tasers are adopted. Some underresourced departments may perform some of these critical tasks poorly.
To make matters worse, cash-strapped local governments like Ferguson, Missouri’s may see tickets, fines, impounding fees and asset forfeitures as revenue sources and push for more involuntary police encounters.
More than a quarter of deadly force victims were killed in towns with fewer than 25,000 people despite the fact that only 17% of the US population lives in such towns.
By contrast, as a rule, towns and cities in Europe do not finance their own police forces. The municipal police that do exist are generally unarmed and lack arrest authority.
As a result, the only armed police forces that citizens routinely encounter in Europe are provincial (the counterpart to state police in the US), regional (Swiss cantons) or national.
What’s more, centralized policing makes it possible to train and judge all armed officers according to the same use-of-force guidelines. It also facilitates the rapid translation of insights about deadly force prevention into enforceable national mandates.
At this point, the Conversation article overlaps with Quartz in observing the higher standards by which most European officers operate under — Spain’s national guidelines require cops to “incrementally pursue verbal warnings, warning shots, and shots at nonvital parts of the body before resorting to deadly force” (whereas only eight U.S. states have such a requirement), while Finland and Norway “require that police obtain permission from a superior officer, whenever possible, before shooting anyone”. Centralized standards mean that every community, regardless of its size, wealth, or social and demographic makeup, ostensibly gets the same sort of treatment.
Now, none of this is to say that these other countries have spotless records of police conduct, or that the wide range of differences in culture, demographics, and socioeconomic variables don’t account for at least some of the disparities in policing methods. But that is not reason enough to disregard these case studies, or to fail to apply at least some of these policies to the many cities, counties, and states with comparable social and demographic profiles.
Moreover, the psychological and sociological data that support less violent policing is largely translatable to American society — most people, regardless of nationality, feel uncomfortable in the presence of an armed agent of the state, and any law enforcement agency subject to rigorous standards of training should subsequently be more professional and competent; it is not as if Americans are somehow immune to higher standards of performance if properly trained and educated.
What are your thoughts?