A few days ago I suggested on Twitter that law enforcement officers might attempt to disarm a mentally challenged man with a knife. It was just a suggestion. There are lots of ways police officers could respond to a knife-wielding attacker, including what two cops near St. Louis had done earlier that day, which was to shoot the man dead.
I mentioned disarming because it’s a technique I know something about, having trained in it and taught it. It’s not easy, it’s risky; but it’s entirely doable, especially if one practices the skill, which you’d think police officers could be given an opportunity to do. There are other options against the knife; the cops in Missouri might have maced the suspect, or tazed him, or tried to talk him down, or tackled him (there were two officers, and it’s kind of hard to stab two people at once), or even thrown chairs or trash cans at him.
This is not to judge the two cops who shot the knife-wielder, necessarily. I’m sure they did the best they knew how. My concern is more with why, generally across the country, our police officers have become such a shooty bunch. We have a lot of guns here, it’s true. Lately some white people have even decided it’s fun to parade around shopping centers carrying automatic weapons, like they do in Sudan. These aren’t the people the cops are shooting though. Instead they shoot unarmed people, and people with knives, or people who look like they might have knives. They shoot people who are reaching for their wallets, people lying face down on subway platforms, and people who live next door to the houses the police are actually supposed to be raiding. They shoot people of darker skin tones and lower income levels. Cops also shoot a lot of dogs, even though there are only about thirty dog bite fatalities in America annually.
Why so trigger-happy, officers? Are these cops evil people? Violent sociopaths? Racists? Sadists? I suppose some are; all those traits exist in the general population and it’s possible that the nature of police work attracts an undue share of them. But I think a simpler explanation is that cops shoot so much because that’s what they’re trained to do. In a crisis, we tend to do what we’ve practiced most. My guess is that the two cops who shot the knife-holder in Missouri had spent a lot more time on the shooting range than they had working on any other threat responses.
I’m not complaining about that, necessarily. I believe that anyone who carries a gun ought to spend lots and lots of time practicing with it. It’s the responsible thing to do. But—and this is the reason I don’t carry weapons—you also need to be aware of the gravitational pull such practice exerts on your behavior. Unless you believe that using a gun is going to be the best response to any threat at any time, you really need to arm yourself with some other behaviors too, and practice them. In effect, the more skewed a police officer’s training is toward gun use, the fewer viable options he or she has to respond with. And that strikes me as profoundly unethical. We enlist cops to keep us safe, and we owe it to them to provide as many effective options as possible as they go about their job.
But a lot of people on Twitter, who positioned themselves as avid supporters of law enforcement (a few verged on worshipful groupie status) seemed to believe that shooting was not just a plausible response, but in fact the best, the only legitimate response, to a man with a knife. These kindly folks felt moved to educate me on the impossibility of a police officer disarming a knife-wielding attacker, and the necessity of shooting said attacker instead. I was told that disarming only works in a dojo, with a compliant partner; that I didn’t know anything about “real” knife attacks, or “how fast things happen” in an attack; that my training was inferior, my logic suspect, and my gender female.
Ironically, the last time I wrote about the efficacy of physical self defense, physical force employed by women, against men—I also received lots of impassioned feedback from people who wanted to educate me. But those people assured me that telling women to use devastating force was a bad idea, either because it put the women at increased risk of harm (a claim that has been statistically disproven) or because it was illegal (a claim that, if true, says more about the shittiness of our legal system than the appropriateness of force in self defense). The ensuing conversation raised some interesting points about gendered definitions of “fighting,” and how men tend to apply their definition to the very different situations women usually find themselves in, with predictably frustrating results.
Having previously been taken to task for advising people to use violent force, I’m amused to now find myself being heckled for suggesting that anyone, especially a law enforcement officer, should use anything less than lethal force. I’m curious whether there’s any overlap between my latest round of helpful scolds and those who lectured me last time. I wouldn’t have thought there could be two groups of people with that much time on their hands, but I don’t know; unemployment, is what, 6.2% right now? So maybe.
Anyway, none of these people could even entertain the notion of a lesser use of force. Some just insisted it wouldn’t work, and others insisted, with equal fervor, that even if other tactics might work, they would expose the cop to some amount of risk, which was completely unacceptable.
The interesting thing about these responses, apart from the spelling, was their continued return to the theme of immediate, physical danger. What would YOU do with a 300-pound thug bearing down on you? Lunatic pulls a knife and rushes a cop—cop feared for his life! People were investing a lot of creative energy in the idea escalation.
Now, I understand fear from the inside out, both imaginary and real. I’m terrified of all kinds of things, and I’ll wager that I can come up with more, and more hair-raising scenarios than any ten bunker-dwellers on Twitter. But come on. Risk is part of a cop’s job. They’re supposed to be experts in navigating risk. And while cops do often get called to a scene after violence has already developed, they don’t always walk into random blind attacks. My question is, if I do have a 300-pound person rushing at me with a knife, how did he get there? What happened before he started forward? What did he say? What did I say? What were the people around us saying and doing? What happened before I arrived on scene?
If, in discussing “appropriate” use of force, we reduce every violent police encounter to the moment the first blow is struck, we willfully ignore all the other what-if moments leading up to it, all of which offer much better opportunities for intervention and safe resolution. Shooting bad guys may sound more fun and exciting, but I don’t see why people should die just because our collective attention spans are too short to think about the problem in larger terms.
Or because we are too fearful not to shoot them. Over and over in my conversations with people about force levels, what I detect is the scent of fear. The idea of using greater force gives people a sense of control, whereas the thought of using less force inspires panic. Which is why de-escalation has to be taught, as a skill, so you can deploy it with some sense of confidence and control. De-escalation requires a specific mindset, but make no mistake: it’s a mindset that can be taught, and practiced, and established as policy.
Conceptually, de-escalation is a way of intervening “upstream” from violence whenever possible, and using resources and strategies to slow a volatile situation down. Many police departments recognize the value of this approach in protecting citizens and cops alike. For example, specific training can help 911 dispatchers identify the types of calls likely to escalate, allowing a prioritized response to get officers on-scene as soon as possible. The sooner intervention occurs, the less likely that violence will escalate. Successful de-escalation at the policy level also means things like working with health professionals to learn better ways of handling mentally ill citizens. There is ample evidence that these techniques work. Can we agree that they are a better way to ensure a peaceful society than shooting everything that moves?
The key factor is experience. Cops need training and practice with de-escalation skills, or they won’t use them successfully, if at all. That fact that we’re seeing so much escalation in cops’ response to threats indicates they aren’t getting that training. That’s a failure of leadership, and it’s occurring both locally and nationally.
Of course, de-escalation also means training law enforcement personnel to recognize their own biases and control them—and holding them accountable when they don’t. De-escalating a violent situation requires establishing a minimum of trust with the potentially violent subject, and if cops are not believed to be trustworthy, that will be tough to do.
It doesn’t help when the police perspective on escalation is represented by goons like LAPD veteran Sunil Dutta, whose recent Washington Post essay, “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me,” wouldn’t sound out of place in a Munich beer hall. Taking the same line used by bullies and abusive husbands worldwide, Dutta tells us that the way to avoid being beaten by a cop is to not provoke one into beating you. “An average person cannot comprehend the risks and has no true understanding of a cop’s job,” he whines, as if we are all happy-go-lucky beagle puppies.
What we cannot comprehend (but he wants to tell us anyway) is that “for me each traffic stop is a potentially dangerous encounter,” and therefore if we argue, or call him names, or walk aggressively, he is justified in shooting, tasing, pepper-spraying, hitting, or throwing us to the ground. In other words, the person without weapons and authority is responsible for de-escalating the situation, because the one with the weapons somehow is the one at greater risk. It’s a curious way to demand people’s respect, and it leads me to wonder, when did the inability to tolerate any sort of risk somehow become admirable?
A cop, Dutta proclaims, “is always concerned with his or her safety and tries to control every encounter. That is how we are trained.”
Well, there’s your problem, officer. No one can control every encounter, and trying to do so leads to escalation and more violence. What’s needed instead is self-control, the kind that doesn’t lead you to blame innocent civilians for getting themselves beaten up by cops.
Human nature is what it is; that’s why we have cops. Goons will always exist, and they’ll always try to get into positions that let them wield force. But there are solutions to both of those problems, provided we’re not too scared to use them.