US Police Need Different, not More, Training

Over the week-end, a naturalized American citizen decided he wanted to kill a bunch of his fellow citizens because he loved Allah and the Prophet Mohammed. He injured 29 people with bombs in Manhattan and New Jersey, but he failed to kill anyone. Meanwhile, the police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Charlotte, North Carolina, have both killed an American. The correct figure for police-civilian deaths is zero, and unless fired upon, the police always have the option to de-escalate. The problem can be solved with different training. They certainly don’t need more of what they have now.

Ideally, the US police would be largely unarmed. Owing to the Second Amendment and the ubiquity of firearms among the criminal classes, the police believe they must have adequate firepower lest they be outgunned. That is the beginning of the wrong-headed thinking. The police don’t need to out-gun anyone unless they are going to be gunning for someone in the first place.

The Bureau of Justice has compiled statistics that show there are roughly 10 million arrests per year in America. Their data go back to 1980, and while incomplete at 80% or so of the population covered, they are an adequate sample to get the over-all picture. Most of those arrests involve the suspect “coming quietly” as they say in the movies. The need for a firearm to do the job, therefore, is suspect.

There is a confidence factor, to be sure. Many of the men and women in blue say that knowing they have a gun gives them the confidence to confront the bad guys. The reverse of that is that they go into any encounter knowing that they have the power to kill. When one lacks such a capacity, one tends to approach a situation less confrontationally. Statistics are hard to generate in this case, but unarmed police are less likely to resort to physical violence. Instead, they call for back up. Eventually, numbers of officers suffice.

Another perspective that needs addressing is the idea that civilians must obey any order given by an officer or face lethal force. First off, most people don’t argue with the police when told to do something reasonable. There are, to be sure, idiots who think they can do as they please, but the officer in that situation must ask, “does this failure to comply merit death?” There are situations where it might, “Drop the gun, sir” may well be followed reasonably by an officer firing his or her weapon. “Be quiet, sir” most assured does not.

Finally, the thin blue line needs to go. Far too many police departments take the view that its “us against them.” If the dichotomy were between the police and felons and malefactors, one would have no qualms about the idea. However, when a bad cop is protected by other policemen and women in some sort of demented solidarity, the danger of this clear.

The police in a free society are asked to do a virtually impossible job. They are asked (for a pittance in compensation) to protect the public good by enforcing a legal code no one person has memorized. They have been trained for a few months and sent out into the real world to make real time decisions. Their every decision may be judged after the fact by people less interested in justice than in getting a client’s charges dismissed.

There is an underused term in American English, a peace officer. The job of the police is not just to arrest criminals and put them in jail. It is to ensure civil order, that domestic tranquility that the Preamble to the Constitution mentions. Peace cannot be built only by the enforcement of the law. How that law is enforced matters as well.