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Do Police Need Guns?10:27
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Atlanta Police officers detain a man after finding a hand gun in his backpack during a protest, Friday, May 30, 2020 in Atlanta. The protest started peacefully earlier in the day before demonstrators clashed with police. (Mike Stewart/AP)
Atlanta Police officers detain a man after finding a hand gun in his backpack during a protest, Friday, May 30, 2020 in Atlanta. The protest started peacefully earlier in the day before demonstrators clashed with police. (Mike Stewart/AP)

Ongoing protests against police violence and racism have prompted a reexamination of the role guns play in law enforcement.

Every sworn police officer in the U.S. carries a gun with few exceptions, says Tracey Meares, professor and founding director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School. But arming officers isn’t the norm in many other countries including the U.K., Ireland, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand.

“I think the better way for police to think about the necessity of arms is not that they're going places where people might have a gun, but instead, what is the kind of incident that you are going to? And is it the kind of incident where you should reasonably expect to have to use a gun to address it?” she says. “And I think once we start asking those questions and taking them seriously, we will conclude that not every officer actually needs to be armed.”

When policing first started in urban areas in the U.S., night-watch officers carried a stick — not a gun, she says.

Many of the origins of policing in the U.S. were “informal arrangements with municipalities,” such as those who patrolled looking for enslaved people, she says. These patrollers weren’t sworn-in by the state but carried their own guns, she says.

Today, Meares thinks too many police officers in the U.S. are armed. Police are called upon to do an array of different tasks, many of which don’t provide a reason to believe an officer would need to use deadly force, she says.

“I understand the impulse,” she says, “but it's kind of like saying that everyone should have to drive a four-wheel SUV because it might snow in a context in which most of the time it's not even cold, let alone snowy.”

Interview Highlights

On how often police draw and shoot their guns

“One of the things that people should understand about policing is that much of the policy around policing as a profession has proceeded in a way that compared to other professions is evidence-free. We don't have standardized federal data collection. Certain agencies have adopted use of force policies locally, so those agencies are better situated to answer that specific question: How often? But you cannot answer that question with any kind of specificity with respect to every one of the agencies across the country. To the extent that we do have answers to that question, I would say the typical police officer doesn't fire his or her gun very often. But that is not to say that we don't have many, many, many incidents of shootings that sometimes end in death of civilians as we have become increasingly aware of over time.”

On whether officers carrying guns is part of the problem when it comes to police brutality against Black Americans

“I think one of the dynamics that's at issue here is the ways in which police are called to respond to incidents in race-class subjugated communities — to use a term offered by my colleagues, Vesla Weaver and Joe Soss — where violence is prevalent. I think about places where I've worked, such as Chicago, Baltimore and other places where police will be called in to deal with or quell serious violence. Police will say that they need to be armed to deal with gun violence in those communities. And I completely understand the need in some cases. It's also the case, however, that we know that there are many ways of quelling violence and building more sturdy structures within communities so that violence can be depressed. And the people who are doing that work are not themselves armed, which I think provide some evidence to say that sending in armed first responders to deal with gun violence is not the only way, or even the best way, to address violence in those communities.”

On the argument that police need guns because so many Americans own firearms

“I would say that police are right to recognize that there are too many guns in this country. And the research that we have been able to undertake in a context of a very disfavorable landscape toward doing research about gun violence and the relationship between the availability of guns and gun violence definitely points to the prevalence of guns being a problem. And [this research] has been relied upon ... by police to justify them carrying guns, which is not the case in other countries. We were talking about the U.K. There aren't a lot of guns there. You know, police are disarming folks with knives in the U.K.

“That said, I would say that there are many, many state agencies interacting with people in the very same communities that see a great deal of violence in this country. I'm thinking of representatives from the Department of Children and Family Services, for example, or teachers. But certainly other representatives of state agencies in the same places where police say that they're concerned about the possibility of folks having guns and none of those workers claim that they need to be armed.”

On how to reduce the number of police officers carrying guns

“I think that it's some combination of specialization within the existing police force that is having people trained to do certain tasks and then being competent, that some folks who are trained to do certain tasks don't need to be armed with guns is one way to do it. Another way to do it would be to substitute some of those sworn police officers for civilians within the force similarly, again, trained to do certain things.

“Do we really need an armed first responder to address a person like Eric Garner selling loose cigarettes on a corner? It seems to me that we don't, but this also brings up an important point, which is, again, police officers are authorized to carry out certain laws and there is a proliferation of relatively low-level ordinances, offenses and the like that police officers are authorized to carry out with force. And I think once we start taking a look at it from that end, we can put a little bit of responsibility, maybe a lot of responsibility on city councils and legislatures to be much more specific about what police are authorized to do when carrying out these kinds of offenses and ordinances. Many of them don't need to be enforced by forcible arrest. And I imagine that once we start cutting off the legal authorization for police to use forceful arrest, we will see an impact on police use of guns as well.”


Chris Bentley produced and edited this story for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on June 23, 2020.

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