THINKING BIG

The case for disarming America’s police force

“Black people have been killed by the police at a tragically disproportionate rate, beyond the bounds of anything that would justify it.”

That sounds like a quote from a contemporary Black Lives Matter activist. But those words were written back in 1974 by American criminologist Paul Takagi. Takagi, an expert in police use of force and community policing, proposed an idea that still seems radical more than 40 years later. “Perhaps,” he said, “the only immediate solution at this time is to disarm the police.”

There’s a broad consensus in the US today that local police forces need to be demilitarized. In the summer of 2014, the country watched as citizens protesting the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, were confronted by local law enforcement SWAT teams bearing body armor, military grade rifles, and armored vehicles. The spectacle helped prompt president Barack Obama’s administration to restrict transfers of military weaponry to local police departments.

Ending police access to armored vehicles is one thing. Taking guns out of the hands of the police is another issue altogether. In fact, Obama’s restrictions on military equipment aside, most of the official responses to police brutality and violence today have involved providing police with new kinds of equipment, from Tasers to body cameras. The conversation always seems to be about how to give police more gear, not less.

An uphill battle

The idea of taking guns away from police is likely to receive a highly skeptical response, even from people concerned about the problem of excessive force. In a nation with so many millions of guns on it streets—both legally and illegally–asking police officers to give up their own weapons presents a logistical and practical quandary.

“There is simply too much violence being committed by criminals with firearms to even consider an unarmed police force in the United States,” Louis Hayes, a working police officer who also trains fellow officers as part of the Chicago-based Virtus Group, tells Quartz. “I doubt there is a community, a city, a local government, or a police union in the entire nation that would seriously consider disarming its protectors.”

Yet there is some evidence that disarming the police might be less dangerous that it sounds. According to statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, of the 27 law enforcement officers murdered in 2013 in the line of duty, only 6 were able to fire their weapons at assailants. Another two were killed after their firearms were stolen and used against them. (Note: several dozen other officers died while on duty during this time, the majority from car accidents.) In many cases, it seems arming officers isn’t a black and white issue of officer safety. Especially since the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report reports that 461 people were shot and killed by police in 2013.

International precedents

Then there is the global precedent. Other nations have had success in disarming police. In England and Wales, where officers generally do not carry firearms, police didn’t kill anyone between March 2012 and March 2014. In comparison, New York City police shot and killed 16 people in 2012 alone. It’s worth noting that London armed more police officers in the aftermath of November’s Paris attacks—but 92% of the city’s 31,000 officers still won’t carry guns. The goal, according to a statement by police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, is to “make sure that our firearms response continues to come from a group of highly specialist and highly skilled officers.”

The UK has much tighter gun control laws than the US, which means that police in the US are more likely to confront situations involving citizens bearing firearms. But Iceland is a different matter. According to GunPolicy.org, an international database hosted by the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, an estimated one-third of Iceland residents own guns, making the country 15th worldwide in gun ownership per capita. Nonetheless, police in Iceland routinely patrol unarmed. There is only one recorded incident of a suspect shot and killed by police in the country’s entire history.

 “This practice is rooted in the belief that arming the police with guns engenders more gun violence than it prevents.” Gudmundur Oddsson, a professor of sociology at Northern Michigan University and a native of Iceland, tells Quartz that Iceland police on routine patrols are unarmed for both safety and public relations reasons. “This practice is rooted in the belief that arming the police with guns engenders more gun violence than it prevents,” Oddson says. “Currently, police officers are only armed with extendable batons and pepper spray on their person [. . .] Arming police officers with guns runs the risk of striking fear in the hearts of the public and undermining the great public support the Icelandic police has enjoyed thus far.” Oddson noted that public trust in police is about 80% in polls, although it did drop slightly recently following news that some police departments had secretly acquired firearms from Norway. (The guns have since been returned.)

According to Oddson, police in Iceland operate “by consent, rather than through the explicit threat or use of force. The effectiveness of any police force to protect and serve the public depends to a great extent on having the consent of the people. And having police officers that are not armed with guns helps remove barriers between the police and the public and builds trust on both sides.” Given the low rates of gun crime and violent crime in Iceland, and virtually nonexistent police shootings, Oddson concludes, “the practice of not arming police officers with guns in Iceland has worked remarkably well.”

Respecting the officer, not the holster

Of course, Iceland is a small, homogeneous country that’s very different from the US. But its success in reducing violence through disarmament still seems worth considering. 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.”

 Guns enable a policing philosophy built on violence and forced compliance. Guns 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.

Mutual de-escalation

Policing in the US needs to change. But even if mass disarmament is a political and legal impossibility right now, there are other options. As a first step toward changing law enforcement philosophy, Smithsimon that suggests police departments consider disarming officers when they are not working. Studies have shown that much police misconduct occurs while police are off duty. There are plenty of incidents in which off-duty police recklessly fire weapons, sometimes with deadly consequences.

“US 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.”

Hayes, the police officer from Chicago, suggests that another possible step could be for some jurisdictions to introduce “unarmed non-sworn positions, commonly called Community Service Officers.” Hayes tells Quartz that these types of officers could handle “many of the lower risk, non-emergent calls that burden so many police force.” Such a solution would require substantial changes in staffing and training—but with such a radically broken system, radical solutions may be necessary to reduce the risk of unnecessary police shootings.

“America is moving more and more rapidly toward a garrison state, and soon we will not find solace by repeating to ourselves: ‘Ours is a democratic society,'” Paul Tagaki wrote in 1974. These words have proved prophetic: In many respects, the US has transformed itself into a garrison state. Undoing that transformation will be difficult. But we can start by taking steps to re-train, and in some cases even disarm, our vast police force.

You can follow Noah on Twitter at @hoodedu. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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