In the wake of Derek Chauvin’s conviction for killing George Floyd, many people advocate better training for police officers. No doubt this is worth doing.
But, as Buckminster Fuller argued, it may be easier “to reform the environment than to attempt to reform people.” Could we reduce the number of people the police kill, training or no training, by changing one part of the environment within which they interact with the public?
There is a lot of room for improvement. A study comparing England and the U.S. from 1996 to 2006 found that American police killed 28 times as many people per capita.
“Defunding the police” in a literal sense wouldn’t help. Completely abolishing police departments would guarantee that nobody would be killed by police officers. But it would increase the much larger number of people — including many people of color — already being murdered by their fellow citizens.
There are, however, serious proposals to “defund” in the sense of transferring some budget money — and responsibilities — from the police to agencies better prepared to deal with mental illness, family fights, routine traffic law enforcement and the like. These proposals might be worth considering.
Employees of the agencies assigned to these jobs would not be armed. So instead of transferring some of their work to other agencies, maybe police officers who do not carry guns — and with better training — could continue to handle these situations.
Without guns — an important change in their environment — officers would be much less likely to kill anybody, intentionally or accidentally.
While George Floyd was not killed with a gun, guns are the typical way people are killed by the police.
American policing developed when equipping all officers with guns made sense. But just because that is how we have always done it does not necessarily mean that it is still the best way.
In England only a small percentage of the police carry guns. Should the U.S., following England’s example, consider arming most officers only with a taser or other non-lethal equipment that can temporarily incapacitate people?
Armed police would still be essential when dealing with comparatively rare (but not rare enough) “active shooter” situations.
I am not a member of a racial minority and have never had problems with the police. (Well, I did get a jaywalking ticket once … in 1961). But I must admit that I feel a little nervous when I encounter an armed officer. It is easy to understand why minority people might panic during such encounters, given the statistics.
Defenders of the police argue that if people would cooperate with police officers, instead of resisting or fleeing, they would be unlikely to be killed. If police officers did not have a gun and if everybody could be assured that the courts would treat them fairly without regard to their race, cooperation would be much more likely.
What would be the side effects of disarming most police officers? Unfortunately, many officers are killed every year and Americans are much more likely have guns than people in England. Would a taser be enough to protect officers? This question should be studied. Research into other non-lethal weapons would also be a good idea.
If no officer carried both a gun and a taser, it would eliminate the occasional tragedies when the officer, intending to use the taser, grabs the gun instead.
Policing is essential, but it is highly challenging work, as Gilbert and Sullivan pointed out in “The Pirates of Penzance” (1879):
Our feelings we with difficulty smother
When constabulary duty’s to be done
ah, take one consideration with another,
a policeman’s lot is not a happy one.
As we seek reforms, we should not make make the work of the good cops — the vast majority — an unhappier one.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966 and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, “Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective,” was published in 1981 and his most recent book is “Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets.” His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon and a number of other states. Read Prof. Paul F. deLespinasse’s Reports — More Here.
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