At the outset, it’s worthwhile to note that the concerns come from the top, the brass, the chief of police of a very progressive place, Burlington, Vermont. The reason this matters is that the rank and file police officer often feels that the brass doesn’t get their problems, has been off the street for far too long to be relevant, and can easily talk about theory when they aren’t dealing with violent criminals who could, in a split second, take their life.
In other words, it’s easy to talk about what cops should do when you’re sitting in the comfy big chair in a sweet corner office, but it’s a lot harder when you’re the guy staring at the knife. And it’s your spouse, your kids, who will live without you should things go south. The chief will pay a condolence call, maybe say that you were a hero at your funeral, but it will still be you in the box when they wipe the dirt from their hands and walk away from the grave.
With that caveat, Burlington, Vermont, Chief of Police Brandon del Pozo has a good point.
The public has grown impatient with seeing the same approach produce a predictably tragic result. In response, Chuck Wexler, the director of the Police Executive Research Forum, has released a guide to reducing the frequency of such incidents. At a national conference for chiefs of police in Chicago recently, he showed three videos to drive the point home: desperate people with knives met by officers who pointed guns and yelled in return.
He obviously refers to the phenomenon of suicide by cop, which is one of the go-to explanations for people apparently goading cops into shooting them.
In each case, the person grew more distressed, advanced out of a desire to be shot and was shot. Everyone suffers when this happens: the person in crisis who gets shot and may well die; the officer who will experience lifelong trauma and doubt, and his or her family and loved ones; and a community that feels it failed to help a person in need.
The use of “suicide by cop” is unfortunate, as it’s a cop excuse; the perp made me do it. It fails to address cops screaming conflicting demands, “drop the gun, raise your hands, don’t move, get on the ground,” all simultaneously, all without an opportunity to comply, all so confusing as to make processing by the subject impossible before the triggers get pulled. It’s not that suicide by cop doesn’t happen, but it’s only one of the many scenarios that happen.
And the public isn’t growing “impatient.” They’re growing angry, outraged, that cops are killing people for what appears to be no good reason, even if the cops have what they consider a perfectly good reason, the First Rule of Policing.
But despite this dubious opening, del Pozo gets to some worthwhile answers.
One of the problems is that we teach our police officers to lead with the gun. We tell officers that a knife or a shard of glass is always a lethal threat and that they should aggressively meet it with a lethal threat in return. But doing so forecloses all of the better ways to communicate with a person in crisis. There are alternatives.
Imagine being an unarmed police officer — like the ones in Iceland or Britain — in the same scenario. Barking orders as you stand there empty-handed would not only seem unnatural but also absurd. Your instincts would tell you to stay a safe distance away, try to contain the person, and calm the situation.
Cops are trained to respond to the threat of harm with force, but it doesn’t take a great deal of training for a guy with a gun to do what guarantees him going home to dinner with his family that night. And the “lethal threat” has slid downhill, from a near-certainty, “the glint of steel,” to it was remotely possible, “the furtive gesture.” The Tueller drill, used mostly as an excuse, seems almost archaic in light of when cops decide the risk is too great not to fire.
But what if cops weren’t armed with guns? That would force them to change their methods to avoid confrontation, to de-escalate, to avoid getting killed but not kill either.
In America, this idea is a non-starter. Police officers being rendered helpless to respond to mass shootings and other gun violence puts a community in danger. But if the police profession doesn’t want politicians broaching these ideas, we owe the public a commitment to doing everything we can to respect the sanctity of life. We should fundamentally change the way police officers view their guns.
Playing the “mass shooting” card is another palliative cry, as they almost never happen, and they aren’t the issue for the public. But since hysteria about mass shootings is easily digestible to the public, who would take issue with this justification for cops remaining armed? Especially since this puts cops in the hero light, protecting the public from mass shooters rather than the angry cop who assumes black guys are prone to violence and pumps a few bullets into him a step or two before there’s any actual claim of justification.
Only during the final phase of a police academy should trainees be presented with a firearm and taught how to use it. Officers should be taught that their weapons protect not only themselves and the public but also the life of the person who is armed and in distress, because they provide a means to stay safe if a calm and reassuring approach fails. By the end of academy, the officers will have learned that yelling at a person as you threaten to shoot is a panicked, last-ditch effort, not a sign of competence.
Whether training can change anything is a dubious proposition. Cops on the street aren’t likely to be trained out of the self-preservation instinct, or their culture of “better to be tried by 12 than carried by six.” But del Pozo is right to be concerned, right to look for better ways to train, right to try to make things better by preventing the needless killings when there is no need for a cop to kill.
Training might not make a cop care about anyone’s life but his own and his fellow cops, but it can’t hurt. At least Chief del Pozo, brass that he is, sees the need to do something about cops killing people. It may not be much, and it may be awash in excuses, but it’s better than nothing. But as long as cops have guns and feel threatened, the First Rule of Policing will apply.