By Alexa Erickson, Collective Evolution
Confrontation, sporadic violence, and arrests during protests continue to follow the surge of racially biased shooting in the United States.
People are angry, confused, and above all, terrified of law enforcement. They have lost faith and trust in the justice system of a nation which prides itself on racial equality.
More than 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, approximately six-in-ten Americans believe the country needs to continue making changes to achieve racial equality.
This year alone, 569 people have been killed by US police. Many of the circumstances have proven these killings to be unjustified, and many others have made media headlines for their clear racial profiling.
The outcome is avoidable. A police officer does not have to shoot and kill. In several countries, police officers don’t even carry guns. Last year, a report by ThinkProgress.com exposed some disturbing figures: In 2015, in the 31 days of March, police in the U.S. killed more people than the UK did in the entire 20th century.
In all the countries where police officers don’t cary guns, except Iceland, citizens don’t have access to guns either, which means police are rarely taken by surprise by a firearm. However, officers are typically trained to handle firearms when need be, and can respond to reports of a citizen with a gun by sending an armed police officer to confront them.
Paul Hirschfield, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University, explains that U.S. police officers are trained for only 19 weeks on average, compared to, say Norway, where they have three years of training before they’re fully qualified.
“If you only have 19 weeks of training, you’re going to spend those on the most essential things. Unfortunately, in the United States, it’s about what you need to defend yourself. How you’re going to avoid getting hurt,” explains Hirschfield. “If you have three years, you can also learn how to protect people, how to avoid these situations from arising in the first place. It fosters a whole different orientation and culture in law enforcement.”
Is the driving force to keep society in check the threat of an armed officer? When walking down the street of a peaceful neighborhood, standing outside a grocery store, or walking through a restaurant, a U.S. officer’s gun in sight is certainly off-putting, if not outright frightening for many, especially given the statistics. Can we trust that, if a situation escalates, innocent bystanders won’t be in the way of unnecessary gunfire? In other countries, police are generally trained to de-escalate hostility with minimal violence as opposed to the threat of a weapon.
Hirschfield says that in Finland, officers must get permission from a superior officer before shooting. In Spain, they must fire a warning shot, then aim for non-vital body parts, before resorting to lethal shooting. “In the United States, you only shoot to kill. You only use deadly force,” he explains.
In Minnesota, Philando Castile, 32, was shot by an officer when he reached for his wallet to show his license. He was mistaken for a robbery suspect, but pulled over for a broken tail light. “The driver looks more like one of our suspects, just ’cause of the wide-set nose,” thepolice officer stated.
Castile was shot several times, and as he slumped toward the passenger’s seat of the woman recording the scene, his 4-year-old daughter sitting silently in the back seat, the officer stood just outside the driver’s side window, continuing to aim his gun at the dying man at point-blank range.
The law in the U.S. doesn’t make it all that hard for police violence to occur without repercussions. In fact, while under the European Convention of Human Rights, police are only permitted to shoot if it’s “absolutely necessary” in order to achieve a legitimate law enforcement purpose, in the U.S., police officers can shoot if there’s “reasonable” perception of a grave and imminent threat. The latter is entirely subjective.
“What defines reasonable?,” questions Hirschfield. “We have a society where it’s often considered reasonable to take a black person reaching into their waistband as a threat. The whole legal framework for determining whether lethal force is legal or not is premised on a flawed assumption that officers can determine what is reasonable.”
While unarmed officers have a better chance of working in countries where citizens do not have access to guns, there’s the argument of Iceland, where an estimated 90,000 guns reside in a population of 300,000, and the country still has one of the lowest global crime rates in the world.
In 2016 alone, the U.S. has had considerable cause for mourning, and anger has led to retaliation, as the police killings in Dallas demonstrate. But while police officers put themselves in the way of great personal risk, more training may allow them to minimize this risk, both for themselves as well as the public they are protecting.