Addressing the image of trigger-happy police

Several retired police officers and criminal justice experts share their opinions

As this 2014 exchange on Quora makes clear, the debate over excessive use of force among police officers is nothing new in the United States. But what makes the following exchange so much more poignant is what immediately preceded it: the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Six years later, we're still having this conversation, because each year, American police officers shoot and kill nearly 1,000 people

The following question was recently posted on Quora: "Are the police forces in the United States trigger-happy?"

Tim Dees, Retired Cop and Criminal Justice Professor

No. Most cops — better than 90% — go their whole careers and never fire their sidearms anywhere but on the pistol range.

In this Monday, June 1, 2020, photo, police clear the area around Lafayette Park and the White House in Washington, as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. Image: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
In this Monday, June 1, 2020, photo, police clear the area around Lafayette Park and the White House in Washington, as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. Image: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Most cops will go to considerable lengths to avoid pulling the trigger. Cops are regularly confronted with circumstances where they would be technically permitted to use deadly force, but they find some alternative way to resolve the situation. If you point a gun at a cop, there is an excellent chance he or she is going to shoot you. That's about the only clear "green light." However, there are many other situations where deadly force might be permissible. It's rare for a cop to shoot in those situations.

There will always be some bad calls. The cop sees, or thinks he sees, a gun, and shoots in defense. Much of the time, the officer's training and mindset (often shaped by recent events unique to the officer and his situation) weigh heavily on this decision.

Live-fire range training is expensive, and realistic animated  targets are hard to construct and maintain because they are damaged by gunfire. Over the past 20 years, there has been extensive use of simulation gear for deadly force decisions. These are basically very large interactive video games that use realistic weapons and provide immediate and realistic feedback. I've done quite a bit of work with these systems, and I can tell you they are about as close to the real thing (and I have experienced the real thing) as you can get. The systems are expensive (often running well into six figures), but they can be run over and over with little or no recurring costs, other than personnel time. Some systems employ a driving simulator with a realistic seat, steering wheel and dashboard that bridges to the deadly force simulator. The officer drives to an incident or runs a vehicle pursuit, negotiating hazards en route, then exits his "car" and finds himself in the middle of the deadly force confrontation.

India L. J. Mitchell, Retired Police Officer

All I can say is that every officer knows that they will be put under a microscope by the news media, citizenry, the police dept itself, plus the Mayor's office for any shooting that results in a death. They know they will be stripped of their gun, clothing and tested by blood draw for any medicines or alcohol. They will also be checked for gunpowder on their hands and clothes, all while being separated from anyone else, usually alone in a room, other than a Union rep.

They usually aren't allowed to speak to anyone immediately after the shooting other than that rep and/or union attorney or the Internal Affair investigators and their family will be advised of the situation.It's somewhat akin to being arrested for a crime and treated as such. They won't be allowed to speak to the media about what actually occurred and the news media will then talk to anyone who may have heard, much less witnessed the shooting just to get a story to air.

They will talk to the person's (who was shot) family who will say there was no reason for the police to have used deadly force, despite the fact that most likely they were not even there. If the officer is found to have used excessive force resulting in death, he/she could most likely be looking at a prison sentence, a lost job and at the very least....their lives will be irrevocably changed for the worse knowing they had to take a human life....justifiably or not.

This doesn't sound like what happens in the television and in movies, does it?

But having been a part of a shooting I am speaking from experience only.

Chris Everett

Overall, no. Trying to compare US to German police is hopeless for the same reason that other comparisons fail... The US isn't Germany. Different culture, different issues, different laws. There are about 800,000 police officers in the United states. If 1% of them are trigger happy, that's about 22 times PER DAY that things will go off the rails. That's 8000 per year. The reality? 587 people killed by police in 2012. In a nation with over 300 million people, 587 getting killed by cops hardly seems to be an issue of significance. It should also be noted that most of them are armed... A situation less likely to happen in Germany or the UK. Certainly, there are people who are wrongly killed by the police. And unfortunately, police don't seem to really learn from these cases, probably because they are so statistically rare.

But they do happen, and here's why:

1.  Poorly trained SWAT teams. A bunch of big guys with rifles does not make a SWAT team. Good SWAT teams train, A LOT, to AVOID the use of force. The idea of employing SWAT is to use methodology to minimize the need for the sort of brutish force that kills people. Note that GOOD swat teams almost never get implicated in "Bad Shoots." It's small town, poorly trained ones that do.

2.  Training that creates a mentality that everyone police encounter is a just escaped convicted serial cop murderer from death row. Yes, some people will kill a cop at the drop of a hat. The VAST majority of people won't. You can't train for the .000001 % of the time at the exclusion of the 99.999999% of the time. Some departments do, and it creates cops that are on a hair trigger.

3.  A lack of training, especially firearms training. Cops who aren't comfortable using their tools (including weapons) tend to use them wrong.

Oh, one last thought on the "trend of militarizing police"...

In the 1960's, police ended riots with .50 caliber heavy machine guns. And bombs. There is no such trend. Cops (many of whom are ex-military) use and emulate military gear/tactics. They always have. A few take it too far. They always have. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Lee Thé, BA Sociology UCLA

The Washington Post recently did a fact-checking article on claims about American police forces. Here's my interpretation of their key conclusions:

1. The level of risk police officers face has been falling precipitously since the mid-90s, after all the kids brain-damaged by lead exposure aged out, and the beneficial effect of legalized abortion kicked in (greatly reducing the number of unwanted children, who are most likely to become criminals).

2. Today’s cops behave more professionally than ever–but the abundance of cellphones reveal the bad ones more than before, along with 24 hour news on cable to publicize them.

3. Contrary to the gun manufacturers’ campaign (via its paid shill the NRA) to militarize police forces, most crimes are committed with small-caliber handguns–including cop killings. But upselling police forces from ordinary guns and rifles and shotguns to military-grade ordnance is enormously profitable to the gun makers, and they're propaganda experts.

4. Aggressive, confrontational policing is the least effective way to control crime. And SWAT teams are massively overdeployed, in order to justify their major expense to taxpayers.

5. Tasers and other “less lethal” weapons allow cops to use less force, but are often used inappropriately to force compliance, not to avoid shooting.

Five Myths About America’s Police

This doesn't support the contention that American police forces are trigger-happy overall, but the fact remains that American police kill 32 times as many people as German police do when you adjust for population size and intentional police under-reporting of how many people they kill.

Another (Much Higher) Count of Homicides by Police

A lot of people here dismiss any comparisons with Germany out of hand. "Different culture, different issues, different laws." This is just as obtuse as assuming the two nations are totally comparable. So you have right wingers saying we can't compare and left winger saying Trigger happy!

Reasonable people — especially ones who have traveled abroad — would say that of course we can compare America with other rich nations, as long as we acknowledge that each nation has distinct differences.

For example, the Japanese police kill, on average zero civilians per year. But Japanese society is racially and ethnically monolithic. It's what I'd expect. However, British police have a similarly low "kill" rate, and their society has sizable racial/ethnic minorities. But it also has stringent gun control, though, with a commensurately lower homicide rate, because people who are stabbed go to the ER, while people who are shot go to the morgue.

Germany also has sizable ethnic minorities — Turks, for example, and immigrants from impoverished countries along the Eastern edge of the EU. So it's a lot more like us than Japan. The real difference is that while private ownership of guns is perfectly legal there, it's regulated in a way that should be a model for the U.S.

This makes the nations not strictly comparable. So if the difference in police killings was double or triple or even ten times that of Germany, I'd shrug. But it's not. American cops killing people at 32 times the rate of German cops is enormous. No wonder the gun crowd are anxious not to have America compared to Germany — because it makes them look bad.

Which brings me to The Economist — arguably the world's most popular conservative publication. It recently published an article about whether American policing was trigger-happy. The article's title:

Don’t shoot: America’s police kill too many people. But some forces are showing how smarter, less aggressive policing gets results

Some excerpts:

They found that smaller police departments tended to have the worst-trained, most trigger-happy cops. That while the Dept. of Justice found that most police shootings were justifiable," the shooting of unarmed people who pose no threat is disturbingly common." Especially with mentally ill people who weren't dangerous but were also unable to immediately obey commands being barked at them.

And note that ultimately justified shootings nevertheless often occurred when the cop(s) involved precipitated the life-threatening situation via "cowboy cop" actions. The Ferguson shooting is probably an example of this. Likewise escalating an arrest on minor charges to a fatal incident by turning disobedience to police commands into a capital offense, punished by summary execution — even if the reason for the encounter was trivial.

Take this horrifying incident: "In 2012 a car containing Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams [both black] drove past  the city’s police headquarters. Officers thought they heard a shot from the car and gave chase, though in fact neither the driver nor the passenger was armed. At least 60 police vehicles and over 100 officers joined in. The chase ended in a school car park, where 13 cops fired 137 shots at the car, killing its occupants. 'The officers…reported  believing that they were being fired at by the suspects,” said the DOJ. “It now appears that those shots were being fired by fellow officers.'"

The article concludes with a warning about the malignant effect of police unions that show zero interest in self-policing:

“There is at least one crazy cop in every precinct,” says a retired NYPD  officer. Everyone else knows who they are, but they are impossible to sack until they do something really stupid.

"The officer who choked Mr. Garner had been sued for wrongful arrest, and was accused of ordering  two black men to strip naked in the street for a search. (He denied it,  and one case was settled.) Reformers think the procedure for sacking  bullies in uniform should be much swifter. Those who enforce the law  should also obey it."

The comment thread on this article including a shocking number of entries that laid all the blame on black men and their violent, subhuman nature. This continues a propaganda campaign by the Southern white establishment to justify their subjugation of blacks and reconcile that with their fervent Christianity. This campaign has been carried on for nearly four centuries, so it's deeply embedded in a large region of America.

Per capita homicide rates do not support this racist belief, however, with the most homicidal state per capita being Alaska, and one of America's most violent municipal police forces being Albuquerque, New Mexico. [EDIT ADD: See comments below for a debunking of this, with my response.] Nor do the rest of the relevant lists bear out the "it's all black men's fault." One reason for thinking this is that black violence tends to be urban, while white violence tends to be in depressed rural areas, and thus spread out more, despite being as bad on a per capita basis.

Which brings me to race. I'm an old, white, college-educated resident of California, living in a college town. My experience of police has been unfailingly correct. I'm polite, they're polite. If I were parochial I'd assume that my experience was universal, and that talk about trigger-happy cops was just "race hustlers" (the Southern white characterization of all blacks who "don't know their place") playing the "race card" (the Southern white characterization of everyone who brings up the topic of their nearly 400 year tradition of racism).

White racists would also say that since I don't live in areas with lots of blacks, I don't know what it's like dealing with those animals. This isn't correct in my case. I worked for a year as a substitute teacher in the SF Bay Area, and many asssignment were in various ghetto districts, as was most of my student teaching.

There I saw just how bad it was — and it was very bad.

However, I also spent several years working in a school district with no blacks but nearly half Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and other recent immigrants from Central America.

It was the same in terms of attitude, behavior problems etc. And statistical evidence of dropout rates, crime, etc. bear this out. Ditto depressed white areas. I don't know why some people think cops are better off dealing with a white biker gang running a meth house in rural Arkansas than with a black gang dealing cocaine in Chicago or a Salvadorean MS13 gang in LA dealing heroin...apart from their racism.

One of the saddest statistics I've read about is the very rare cases of cops out of uniform (off-duty or undercover or detectives) being shot by other cops. Of the last 14 such incidents, 10 were of black cops in the process of arresting white perps when other cops arrived on the scene, assumed the black cop was the perp and the white perp his victim, and promptly shot the black cop.

This was born out by a 2007 study of Denver cops and civilians playing a videogame in which they had to make split-second shoot-don't shoot-decisions based on glimpsing white and black men, some armed, others with a wallet or a cellphone in their hand.

The cops were better at spotting the dangerous images and shooting them than the civilians were, but it took measurably longer for them to deal with images of armed white men and unarmed black men than with armed black men and unarmed white men.

Cops think blacks are more dangerous — even cops who are not overtly racist — and they behave accordingly.

For another example, "Reuters interviewed 25 African American male officers on the NYPD, 15 of whom are retired and 10 of  whom are still serving. All but one said that, when off duty and out of uniform, they had been victims of racial profiling, which refers to using race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone of having  committed a crime.

"The  officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having  their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing stop and frisks  while shopping. The majority of the officers said they had been pulled  over multiple times while driving. Five had had guns pulled on them."

Off Duty, Black Cops in New York Feel Threat From Fellow Police

No wonder blacks' feelings about police forces being trigger-happy aren't the same as whites' feelings, in general.

One more thing. Think about what it takes to own slaves. People don't like being slaves. So they're continually scheming to work as little as possible, to run away if possible, and even to revolt and kill Massa and all his family. This forces the slave-owners' culture to make total compliance mandatory, enforced with rapidly escalating violence, up to and including summary ex judicio execution. Even if it's just foot-dragging.

And whaddaya know, many police forces have the same ethos. It was fine to kill Eric Garner (on Staten Island), not for selling loosies, not for attacking cops, but simply for not obeying cops' instructions. Exactly the same as Southern white cops were trained to do for nearly 400 years.

This notion of Southern "honor" is also behind the "stand your ground" laws that many blacks regard as a hunting license on them.

So are American police trigger happy?

Moreso with blacks than with whites. Moreso in the South than most other parts of the country. Moreso with small town police departments in general. And moreso if you have the misfortune of running into that "one crazy cop" in your precinct.

EDIT ADD: Just found a book about the rising trigger-happiness of our police forces and the role of legislatures and other government entities in making them so:

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces

It's apparently non-partisan — some of the reviews praising it were police officers saying it matched what they've seen themselves.

Michael Walker, NRA firearms instructor

I echo Mr. Everett's thoughts completely. I would like to add a few thoughts: During my 26 year tenure in law enforcement, I knew a total of two police officers that I felt were 'questionable'. By questionable, I mean possibly prone to be trigger happy. Neither one ever actually shot anyone.

There were several times I could have legally shot someone and didn't. Because instincts and training told me I did not have to.

I was a SWAT team leader and qualified by the FBI to carry a fully automatic weapon. I kept the shot selector on a three shot burst and never had to fire it outside of training, thank God.

And training was extensive as well as realistic. We took turns playing SWAT member and suspect in training scenarios.

We used specially adapted paintball rounds that were kept cold. If you were shot in a non protected area of your body, it sometimes broke the skin, and certainly hurt. That was by design.

We were on 'standby' many more times than we actually went 'tactical'. We were close by and ready, but the citizens were rarely aware. I would hardly call that 'militarization.'

One thing that always worried me was the physical fitness level of the officers. A significant number of police officers being shot are killed with their own weapon after being overpowered.

Officers are aware of this, and there are unfortunately times when they shoot because they know or fear this is about to happen. Thankfully, it is still rare.

What would you do if a violent but unarmed suspect was trying to take your weapon and you knew he was about to succeed?

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