Last week, Arizona officials released a video in which a police officer is seen shooting and killing Daniel Shaver, a 26 years-old unarmed father of two, while he is crawling on the floor begging for his life. The video starts with an officer stating, “If you make a mistake, another mistake, there is a very severe possibility that you’re both going to get shot. Do you understand?” Two officers are seen in a hallway of a La Quinta Inn & Suites pointing AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifles at two people lying on the ground.
When I saw the video, I felt sick. I had to wonder, how many policing interactions progress just like this one but go unheard of because they did not end with a shooting? I had to wonder, how did a jury of my peers acquit the police officer? I had to wonder, if there is any way to prevent these kind of incidents from ever happening again?
I had to wonder, is it time to start a national conversation about disarming the police?
Police officers in the United States kill almost a thousands people each year. This year, at the time I’m writing these words, 917 people were killed by police. Odds are that this number will be higher by the time that this piece will be published. Daniel Shaver was one of the 963 people killed by police in 2016. To put these figures in perspective, “one-third of all Americans killed by strangers are killed by police.” In England and Wales, there is a public discussion about a “12-year-high” in police shooting after six fatal police shootings in 12 months. It is also worth noting that the number of police officers killed by assailants in 2016 was 66 (There are about one million full-time police officers in the US.) Every year, 14 times more construction workers are killed on the job compared to police officers killed in the line of duty.
In The End of Policing, one of the most noteworthy books of 2017, Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale argues that a combination of police as holding the monopoly on legitimacy of the use of force and a “warrior mentality” instilled in police officers -- implicitly in training and explicitly in the gear they are provided -- makes killings of civilians by police almost inevitable.
The “warrior mentality” that Vitale describes is seen in the video of the murder of Shaver clearly. The police officers see themselves in a war, at high risk. And at war, if you lose, you die: “If you move, we’re going to consider that a threat and we are going to deal with it and you may not survive it.” The officer made an a-priori decision that Shaver is a threat, regardless of the actual circumstances of the case. As such Shaver’s fate was doomed before the interaction even started.
The problem becomes even more pertinent given the legal standard that juries need to adhere to in these cases. In every police shooting case, juries are asked to decide whether the police officer acted under “objective reasonableness.” This language comes from the Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling in Graham v. Connor, a case once seen as a victory for those seeking accountability in incidents of excessive use of force.
The Graham decision “backfired.” It led to juries putting themselves in the shoes of the police officer, in a country where police officers view every interaction with civilians as a battle. It perpetuated an internal benchmark logic to assess policing: when almost 1,000 police officers shoot and kill almost 1,000 civilians every year, without any charges for the vast majority of them, how unreasonable could this new shooting be? Obviously, many other police officers responded the same way.
As long as police officers are armed, they will use their weapons. As long as they continue to use their weapons, civilians will be killed. As long that this happens often, juries will deem such killings as reasonable.
A few months ago, a police officer shot and killed Cariann Hithon, a 22-year-old black Temple University student who was celebrating her birthday in Miami. In a video a taken by a bystander, Hithon is seen in her car with a crowd around her. One person says that she is drunk. A police officer starts walking toward her and Hithon starts driving, hitting a police officer. At that point another officer shoots and kills her as she is driving away. Her car crashes.
The officer who killed Hithon had legal justification. Hithon had weaponized her car. However, it is unclear whether killing Hithon was necessary or even the best way to insure public safety.
I spoke about the incident with Randy Shrewsberry, a former police officer, and currently the executive director of The Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform. Shrewsberry says that “cops are trained to react on possibilities instead of on probabilities.” In the case of Hithon’s shooting, the imagination of the police officer is likely that if she drove away, she would have hit a family. In reality, the officer shot his gun in a crowded place, and killing Hithon made her lose control of her car, which could have endangered people down the street. The possibility won over the probability.
The same exact problem arises in the killing of Daniel Shaver. In his testimony, Brailsford told the jury that “if this situation happened exactly as it did that time, I would have done the same thing.” The officer added, “I believed 100 percent that he was reaching for a gun.”
Crawling on the ground, crying for his life, with multiple weapons pointed at him, the possibility that Daniel Shaver would be able to somewhat magically pull out a gun, aim, and shoot fast enough to harm the responding officers beat the probability that proved true -- he didn’t have a gun.
Even if Shaver had a gun, if the police officer was pointing a taser at Shaver and discharged it at the exact moment the officer shot the gun -- the moment that he allegedly thought that Shaver is reaching for his gun -- the officer would have neutralized Shaver without killing him.
Had the police responding to the call been unarmed, none of the police officers would have been hurt and Daniel Shaver would still be alive.
Comparing the experience of American police to the experience of the unarmed police officers in other first-world nations is unfair some may say, since the United States is home for almost half of the civilian-owned guns in the world. But it is a common misconception that police officers frequently use their guns. While eight in 10 adults believe that a police officers fire their weapons once in their careers, it has been estimated that, in New York City for example, 95 percent of police officers never used their guns on duty. Other countries with high gun ownership rates have had success in disarming the police. Iceland, for example, had a single homicide in 2009, despite having an unarmed police force and one of the highest gun ownership rates in the world. Norway has the world’s 11th highest gun ownership rate, on par with Iraq; however, Norway’s police officers traditionally keep their weapons locked in their patrol cars. Following an increased terrorism threat in 2014, Norway decided to temporarily arm police officers. Yet, by January 2016, Norway returned to having unarmed police officers, because firearms were not needed.
It is important to think about disarming the police not as a measure that will put police in danger, but as a measure that will increase their safety. An ambush is the most frequent circumstance in which police officers are killed, but unfortunately preventing the ambush is the key to safety, not being armed. In other circumstances, such as in in Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, the police officer claimed that the the assailant reached for the officer’s gun. In other cases, like the shooting deaths of Akai Gurley in New York and Justine Damon in Minneapolis, officers claim that they discharged their weapons due to being startled. Removing the weapons from the equation would have removed that problem.
Like any policy solution, disarming the police is not a magic bullet. We need other policies to keep police officers safe, like gun control laws. It also won’t happen overnight. Some might say that having unarmed officers responding to every type of call is an attempt to force one solution for multiple varying situations. However, it is important to recognize that having armed officers respond to every call - from calls in schools to mental health crises to a disturbance in a hotel - is a lethal one-glove-fits-all policy that is costing lives.
It is time to have a serious conversation about disarming the police. As long as police in the United States have weapons by default, police officers will be America’s most lethal strangers. It is time that police carry gear that is appropriate to reacting to probabilities, not possibilities.