One thing Duante Wright, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Samuel DeBose, and Rayshard Brooks, have in common is that the police who killed them could have accomplished whatever they were legitimately supposed to be doing without a gun on their hip. The police in these incidents had no reason to anticipate violence in the interactions. There was no report of a violent crime, no weapons visible, no sign of anyone in imminent danger. Whether you think the police acted with racist malice, incompetence, or even reasonably, the fact is that if the police who killed them weren’t carrying guns no one would have died.
The structural approaches to police violence introduced in the last year, including reducing police funding to replace them with other agencies and services, involve big, complex proposals. For example, a recent law review article by Jordan Blair Woods reasonably suggests replacing police with unarmed civilian enforcers of traffic codes. These would require changing laws and restructuring government budgets.
A much simpler and immediately effective remedy to at least some of our problem is a simple matter of police department policy: don’t wear your guns.
Whether it was poor training, racism, malice, or just fatally bad luck that led Kimberly Potter to shoot Duante Wright with her gun instead of her Taser in Booklyn Center, Minnesota earlier this month, the body camera recording clearly shows she had nothing in her hands just seconds earlier. She didn’t enter the scene with her gun out because there was no reason to suspect violence, and in fact the only violence that occurred was her shooting Wright. If she hadn’t had a gun on her hip, he wouldn’t have died.
For all the talk of “de-escalation” in police interactions with the public, this simple solution is routinely overlooked. In any potentially violent conflict, the stakes are automatically raised to the level of the deadliest weapon present. Guns escalate conflict.
The policy details are important. In a society awash in guns (unlike many of those where police are usually unarmed), police here will sometimes need them for good reasons. You could start with some units dedicated to traffic enforcement, for example. Some police could have guns in a safe in the trunk of their car. Special units could be routinely armed. But the officers who come to your (my) house to discuss online death threats don’t need to be wearing firearms.
There are risks to police from such an approach, but the present default unreasonably assumes that carrying guns only reduces those risks. How often are unarmed police killed at traffic stops? If we don’t know the answer to that, maybe it hasn’t been sufficiently tried. If your response is, “one traffic cop killed is too many,” try applying that logic to the unarmed victims of police.
Even if you believe Darren Wilson, who said Michael Brown tried to take his gun in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, possession of the gun was the basis of their violent conflict. Even if Darren Wilson had been just as racist in harassing Brown for walking in the street, no one would have died if Wilson hadn’t had a gun.
A Justice Department report on Michael Brown’s death noted, “Under well-established Fourth Amendment precedent, it is not objectively unreasonable for a law enforcement officer to use deadly force in response to being physically assaulted by a subject who attempts to take his firearm.” Well-established, perhaps, but that’s tragically circular – cop has a right to kill someone with his gun who tries to take his gun – because he has a gun.
If Duante Wright or Michael Brown or George Floyd had resisted arrest, punched an officer, or driven off to escape law enforcement, no one would have died. But that’s not all that would be different. If police in those situations, and millions of others, weren’t carrying guns, we could develop a new mutual understanding between the police and public: Police won’t “accidentally” kill you during a traffic stop or when reacting to nonviolent infractions, but if you do attack unarmed police, more police will show up later and they will have reason to be armed.
What might seem riskier to police upfront – leaving the gun in the trunk, or at the station – would certainly lead to fewer deaths of innocent, unarmed, nonviolent, people. Given the scale of innocent life taken in such incidents, and its effects on relations between the public and the police, that is a paramount concern for equity, civil rights, and law enforcement. But by reducing the stakes of individual interactions with police – automatically de-escalating them – it would probably also end up making the job safer for police as well.
Policing is dangerous work, work the police make more dangerous by introducing firearms into many interactions that should remain nonviolent. Would removing the holster from the standard uniform discourage people from becoming police? To some extent it might. But if not wearing a gun discouraged the kind of person for whom wearing a gun is the best part of the job, so much the better.
In the war between armed police and the unarmed public, the police should unilaterally disarm.