Cops, Unarmed

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.

13 thoughts on “Cops, Unarmed

  1. L. Phillips

    Having been trained on and given training in multiple weapon systems I would argue that both firearms and less-lethal response training for new recruits and veteran officer re-qualifications are woefully inadequate in the academies and departments I am familiar with.

    First, far too many training “systems” consist of standing in front of an inert paper target. The theory as I understand it is that accuracy degrades significantly under stress, which is generally but not entirely correct in my experience. The usual solution is that everyone should be given the skills of a bullseye shooter so that degradation at least starts from a more accurate place. This doctrine has been SOP for US military individual rifle and pistol training since near the end of the Civil War and I suspect is the basis for its broad acceptance by police agencies.

    In my lifetime of military and police service, more training was the key to technical ability and an increased situation awareness, including control of my own reactions. The ability to attend various weapons training schools across the country, often on my own dime, that exposed me to differing doctrines of use of force was interesting and helpful. But the most useful was the introduction of full immersion live action force on force training with simunitions and computer simulated virtual reality scenarios.

    When a person is comfortable with their ability to deploy an assigned weapon under stress, then their brain can concentrate more on the dynamics of the situation than on the mechanics of pressing the trigger. This was brought home to me in a rudimentary FATS simulator almost 20 years ago where the scenario was a pair of gunmen in a medical office. Going in I cleared the reception area, including a glance into the interior of an oval reception corral. After successfully finding and engaging the pair in other parts of the building I exited past that same reception desk whereupon an unarmed female jumped up from under the desk screaming at the top of her lungs. Her reward was two rounds on the bridge of her nose, which happened automatically before I even willed it. I walked away from that scenario humbled by the stark realization that being a good mechanic was only part of the solution and that I had a lot left to learn. The hoots of the personnel running the FATS as they explained that “everyone dings her” didn’t help. So I set out to learn more.

    I don’t know Chief del Pozo from Adam’s off ox, and know even less of his motivations, but my experience tells me it is more training, consistent training, and especially training in realistic stressful situations that helps get officers over the hump from being a mechanic to an experienced, intelligent responder. Not less.

    1. SHG Post author

      You have far more faith in training than I do. In every training exercise, you know you will walk out alive. That’s not the case on the street. Old cops tell me they’ve taken punches and aren’t that easily scared. They tell me younger cops haven’t and are scared by everything. Is there training that prevents a frightened kid cop, in actual stress scenarios, from deciding it’s better to fire than die?

      1. L. Phillips

        The difference with training under visual and auditory stress is that you body doesn’t always know the difference and the adrenaline occasionally flows. That is the experience so often lacking in basic weapons training and was, for me, so instructive. Having it on the street is different by degrees but not wholly so. My argument is better to experience and hopefully learn from it in a controlled but realistic environment as preparation rather than exclusively on the street where the stress, ammunition and consequences are real.

        1. SHG Post author

          I agree it’s better. I’m just dubious that it’s good enough, especially from what I hear from older or ex cops today.

    2. Fubar

      In my lifetime of military and police service, more training was the key to technical ability and an increased situation awareness, including control of my own reactions.

      Your point on the value of weapons training in “realistic stressful situations” for situational awareness is doubtless true. Your point about “control of my own reactions” is even more important.

      It invites the question of training in what to do before resorting to a weapon.

      Use of firearms becomes much more an absolutely last resort if one is is skilled in controlling or subduing an attacker without using a weapon.

      I’ll risk our gracious host’s ire for personal anecdotes to illustrate my point.

      Some 30 years ago I met and interviewed a (then) retired motorcycle cop for a large northern California city. He held many departmental awards for his DUI arrests and convictions. DUI stops are among the most dangerous for any cop.

      Throughout his entire career he drew his service revolver (not an automatic) only once during an arrest. He never fired it except at the range. He was an excellent marksman.

      He also held a black belt in Aikido. He could disarm and subdue an assailant in a fraction of a second.

      His motto was “Speak softly and study Aikido, then you won’t need a big stick.”.

      Needless to say, his Aikido training was on his own dime, not his department’s.

      1. SHG Post author

        You’ve earned your personal anecdote. That said, you friend’s career shows that it’s more mindset than training.

  2. B. McLeod

    Maybe officers in Burlington, Vermont have never seen a firearm until one is handed to them in the Academy, but in most of the country, a whole lot of folks are going to have some experience sending rounds downrange before they ever sign up for the Academy (or even if they never do). Generally, this doesn’t include the panicked police behavior of screaming shit at people whenever you have to draw your weapon. That IS something they learn at the Academy, as part of the common police theory of control-freakery, and maybe the answer is to stop teaching that, irrespective of when they let trainees start practicing with a duty weapon.

    Also, before we transition to completely unarmed police, there is the Andy Griffith solution, developed in this country long ago as a means of working with nervous deputies who are prone to errors in judgment and accidental discharges (i.e., bullet may be introduced to the firearm only in cases of emergency).

  3. DaveL

    Don’t underestimate the power of training. Do you think candidates just show up at the academy prepared to empty the magazine into granny for having her hand in her purse? Ordinary civilians have all kinds of “moral” or “pro-social” instincts that require conditioning to overcome.

  4. Anonymous Coward

    Instead of subtracting guns,add consequences. Abolish qualified immunity and sovereign immunity and hold officers personally responsible for every shot fired just like every other citizen. Right now being trigger happy mostly results in paid time off. If shooting through windows or spraying bullets in the general direction of a barking dog meant a criminal trial and a possible felony conviction and jail sentence police officers might shoot less, kill less, and winnow out the cowboys.

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