The symbols of policing are famous: the badge and the gun. The badge connotes authority, the gun puts the “force” in “law enforcement.” The 9-millimeter semiautomatic is attached at the hip to every officer in the New York Police Department from their first day in uniform to their last.
Since the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd earlier this year, police reform advocates have pushed for defunding or abolishing the police. In New York City, they have made some headway, with the repeal of 50-a, the state law that shielded police disciplinary records, and the subsequent publication of complaints against NYPD officers. The city’s new budget took hundreds of millions from the police department for summer youth programming, education, and social services. There are other steps that could still transform police behavior: expanded training and revised training, tightened shooting protocols, making it easier to remove officers guilty of misconduct; requirements that officers live within city limits; and, of course, demilitarization. Calls for demilitarization usually focus on military grade equipment such as armored vehicles and tactical rifles, which are used only sporadically.
The more radical move would be to separate the badge from the gun. The handgun has been standard police equipment since the 19th Century, but it’s time to reevaluate, said Hawk Newsome, president of Greater New York Black Lives Matter. “We need to stop thinking about police as soldiers, as a military force, and start thinking about them as a social services organization,” Newsome argued.
In the United Kingdom, most officers are unarmed – only special units have guns – but the notion of unarmed officers patrolling New York City’s streets might seem hopelessly naive. It’s certainly not politically realistic at the moment, but many reform advocates think it’s still a conversation worth starting. Some reform advocates argue it would create a city in which its residents feel safer, while enduring less psychological and emotional abuse at the hands of police.
Truthfully, if New York did disarm the vast majority of its officers – allowing only a specially vetted, specially trained unit in each precinct - the number of lives saved would be relatively minimal. Improved training and protocols, and dropping crime rates, have already cut the number of shootings by the NYPD from 994 in 1972 to 345 in 1995 and even further downward since then. By 2018, when the police responded to more than 6.1 million calls, of which 61,769 involved weapons, they fired guns in only 35 incidents. Just 17 of those were adversarial shootings at suspects, with five people killed. The rest were accidents, shooting at dogs, or police suicides and attempts.
Some of the lives saved would be of cops themselves. In New York City, the only two officers to die in the line of duty in the last three years were killed by friendly fire and more than a dozen officers attempted or committed suicide using firearms during that span.
“Officers do shoot their weapons less, and we should give some credit there,” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said. “Unfortunately, there are other ways of over-policing and abusing people. I want to reframe and redefine what public safety is. Right now, (police think) it’s about making sure those crime numbers go down and using as much force as possible at all times to do it. But communities should have a big say in how they’re policed and very often they do not.”
Always carrying guns reinforces an us-versus-them perspective, dividing the police from civilians, said Greg Smithsimon, a Brooklyn College sociology professor who studies policing issues. Police training now ingrains the “warrior” mentality, Smithsimon said, which leads to bullying behavior. “You can do it because you’ve got a gun at your side, not because you have the power of the justice system,” he said. “That gun speaks really loudly in the way cops are willing to escalate situations.”
Smithsimon believes that eliminating guns would “change the social compact,” producing a different relationship with civilians and thereby even reducing killings by cops in which no guns were used, like those of Eric Garner and George Floyd. Stripping away guns “would take away some of the aggression and bravado,” said Newsome. “The police might learn a more humanist or heart-centered approach.”
Other experts warn that merely removing guns alone won’t change the police’s attitude. “That warrior mentality is totally out of context in 99 percent of interactions” said Justin Hansford, executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University. “But it’s really difficult to dislodge that mentality, even though police behavior is not tracking with the facts. Crime has gone down, the police are not likely to be shot. Fear is way overblown. It really comes down to race and this idea that ‘these people’ are going to kill us.”
Some situations require armed police, but if each precinct has a unit of armed officers available they’d still respond in a timely fashion, according to disarming advocates. “Cops rarely show up when a violent crime is being committed,” Smithsimon noted, “so there wouldn’t be much sacrifice in terms of safety.”
No one believes the NYPD would welcome such a suggestion. The NYPD did not comment for this story, neither would Mayor Bill DeBlasio or City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
The two largest New York City police unions, however, were more than willing to express their scorn for the idea of disarming most police officers. Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said in a statement, “The world is made up of smart people and stupid people and anyone seriously proposing disarming the police has just told the world they are stupid people.”
Meanwhile, Police Benevolent Association president Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement: “The proposal is asinine and dangerous. The United Kingdom saw only 33 people killed by guns last year. New York City just saw 51 shootings in a single weekend. Imagine what our streets would look like if criminals knew they were the only ones with guns.” (It was actually 39 shootings, with 51 victims.)
Williams acknowledges that America’s “demonic obsession with guns” complicates any comparison to European policing, as it’s far more likely in the United States that a criminal suspect may be armed. “I don’t think America is like anywhere else in the world, in terms of guns,” Williams said. “Guns kill more people here than wars.”
Changing gun control laws would directly reduce police shootings: regions with stricter gun control laws see fewer police shootings against citizens of all races, while those states with lax laws and higher rates of gun ownership – where the police are more likely to fear a suspect has a gun-- have more shootings.
But Williams still believes the concept of disarming police is at least worth discussing, or would be if the police unions weren’t so intransigent. “The Police Benevolent Association and the Sergeants Benevolent Association are terrible on (reform), they’re just horrible,” Williams said. “I always say the union leaders would make great police chiefs in the Jim Crow South.” (Lynch and Mullins did not respond to comment in particular.)
However, Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity at John Jay College, thinks that a heavily armed citizenry makes the idea of disarming the police seem not just fantastical but dangerous. “Disarming the police has irresistible logic, but reasonable positions don’t always make for good politics,” he said, arguing that the policy would be one just one shooting away from a political catastrophe. “Let’s say, nationally, we disarmed law enforcement unilaterally – when an (unarmed) officer gets shot, you’ll have law enforcement walking off the job and the unions and citizens saying the politics have gone too far,” Goff said. The backlash, he added, could yield “worse policies for the Black community than what we have now.”
Ultimately, Goff argues that changing society matters more than changing police rules. “What we saw on the streets was not just a response to bad policing or to a lynching, it was a reaction to 400-plus years of targeted abuse and neglect of Black communities,” Goff said, arguing that investing in and empowering Black communities matters more than resolving policing issues. “We need conversations about reparations and the debt owed to Black communities, more than unilateral disarming (of police).”
But advocates of disarming the cops say that while it might not be nearly enough, it would still be transformative. “The racial hierarchy is steeped into the very foundations of our legal system and it’s so deeply entrenched that there’s a direct correlation to seeing a black or brown person and seeing someone who is criminal and dangerous,” said Alexis Hoag, a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer and a professor at Columbia Law. But while institutional racism and implicit bias extend far beyond law enforcement and require broader cultural reprogramming, disarming the police in the meantime “would result in real change in terms of law enforcement engagement with local communities.”
If police were unarmed, not only might people like Walter Scott, Tamir Rice and Sean Bell be alive, but their families, friends and the larger Black community would not have been traumatized. “Saving one life makes any initiative worthwhile, but when you’re talking about 5,000 people dead in five years, then obviously this experiment in policing has failed and we must go back to the drawing board and re-think policing,” said Newsome.
And what may seem politically impossible today could be mainstream tomorrow. The Rockefeller drug laws in New York seemed impervious to repeal until they weren’t. “The gap between the conceivable and the achievable is not always what we think it is,” Smithsimon noted.
Newsome says disarming the police can succeed if it’s presented properly. “Any modification to the police is translated as a threat to white American security,” he said. “If we can convince people they’ll be secure in a new system we can win.”
Hoag observed that when she started law school 15 years ago, people were not talking about defunding and abolishing the police or abolishing prisons, even among social justice advocates. “Now, my law students come in as self-identified abolitionists,” she said. “I try not to dismiss some of these ideas as being too radical,” Hoag added. “If we start a conversation now, it may move to the mainstream. My students are coming out of Columbia Law School and some will eventually be in positions of power. They are hoping to establish these policies.”
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