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Police Interactions Aren't Black and White

The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri this past August set off a powder keg of emotion and placed policing under a new microscope.  There has long been discussion of policing as it related to race relations and profiling.  But following this incident, we had to go on the defensive beyond the claims of racial bias, debunk the media hyperbole of “militarization,” and justify the protective equipment we value as essential in the execution of duties.

There was a common misconception that the equipment deployed by police in the nights following the August 9th shooting was that of military surplus.  It was not.  The media and ill-informed public referred to Bearcats and armored personnel vehicles as “tanks,” as if they were capable of lobbing mortar fire.  These vehicles were purchased new from Homeland Security money.  Funds that previously were directed through the Department of Justice in C.O.P.S. block grants to add additional police officers to the ranks (which is how we had community policing officers and school resource officers), and purchase and outfit new squad cars to get the frontline resources to where they were needed were diverted following 9/11 to the war on terror.  We replaced funding for squad cars with funding for Bearcats and money for officers to money for gas masks. 

We bought it all new – none of it came from the military.  Did we need to do it this way?  For years I’ve said no.  But government isn’t good at moderation.  The “tanks,” as the public liked to call them, have been very useful since we acquired them.  They’ve certainly beat the retrofitted, used armored bank trucks we used to use.  For armed encounters, like the protests in Ferguson, and barricaded subjects, they are key in enhancing officer safety.  We probably just didn’t need so many.

Senator McCaskill (D-MO) was quick to open congressional hearings on the military surplus program that donated equipment for law enforcement use.  This was a program that probably needed to be looked at a long time ago; but not under the guise of Ferguson.  The police didn’t “militarize” until West Florissant Blvd. came to resemble a war zone; and even then, it wasn’t military gear that was used.  It was gear purchased under funding guidelines established by the very politicians who now condemn its use, without an understanding of how it was derived and the purpose of its civilian application. 

The event also started a discussion about how the police deal with minorities and minority recruitment in law enforcement.  A discussion we certainly have needed to have – but, again, not because of the Ferguson shooting.  There has been nothing known that would indicate that the transaction between Wilson and Brown was racially motivated.

If Bobbys can do it…

The consensus of a section of our population believes us to be trigger-happy.  They see or hear media reports of another police involved shooting and default to the thought that another alternative could have been used to defuse the situation, especially in the instances such as Ferguson where one of the parties was “unarmed.”  This is a tricky term.  Any time there is a police officer present, there is a gun in play.  Officer Wilson’s contention, with apparent forensic evidence to support it, is that Brown struggled for his gun.  As we know, there is only one reason someone attempts to disarm a police officer – to use that gun against the officer.  When this happened, Brown no longer was the “unarmed 18-year old,” even though the fatal shots were received when he was not in possession or had his hands on the weapon – he possessed the mindset to do harm with the gun.

It was this reality that led some people to question why American police need to be armed to begin with since the UK is policed predominately by unarmed officers.  Britain has grappled with the question of arming or not arming their police force at large for some time.  Currently only about 5% of the police forces in England and Wales are “Authorised Firearms Officers.”[1]  The idea of not arming the police as a whole stems to the notion Sir Robert Peel had when he formed the Metropolitan Police – he did not want it to be militaristic as the general public feared the force would be oppressive.  The English believe that arming the entire force would be contrary to the notion of “policing by consent.”  However, these ideals are not held as closely when it relates to protecting key locations in the country, such as embassies, airports, and 10 Downing Street. 

Aside from the Republic of Ireland (Northern Ireland is armed), New Zealand, Norway, and very few others, the majority of the UK is an outlier in the modern policing world.  Most police forces around the globe today are armed – and in some countries the standard accompaniment is more than a sidearm.  Have you been to Mexico?  But the UK police have resisted firearms; and, in part, so has the nation as a whole.  Gun crime in the UK remains low.  England and Whales recorded only 388 firearm offenses resulting in serious injury or death in 2010-11.1  Contrast that with the US,  who on average sees 108,067 people assaulted or killed by firearms each year.[2]

In spite of the generally low gun violence in the UK, the public seems to want their police to be armed.  A 2004 poll by ICM found 47% of the public supported arming all the police, 48% opposed it.  The desire to arm police seemed to increase by 2007 when the think-tank Policy Exchange conducted a poll of over 2,000 adults where 72% wanted more armed patrols.1  Even Michael Winner, the chairman of the Police Memorial Trust, has spoken in support of arming the officers.  The memorial contains the names of 44 officers.  Mr. Winner has said, “It is almost certain that at least 38 of those [police officers] would be alive had they been armed.[3]

So then why aren’t more Bobbies armed?  The short answer – they resist it.  A 2006 survey of Police Federation members found that 82% did not want to be routinely armed.  Brian Paddick, a former Met deputy assistant commissioner, theorizes that “front-line officers would not be keen to face the agonizing, split-second decisions faced by their counterparts in specialist firearms units.”1  Because of this Paddick does not believe officers will ever be widely armed.  And Greater Manchester Chief Constable Sir Peter Fahy points to America as a reason for the UK to maintain their current style of policing saying, “Sadly we know from the experience in America and other countries that having armed officers certainly does not mean, sadly, that police officers do not end up getting shot.”1

The reality of dangers posed to US police

Sir Fahy isn’t wrong.  While the Police Memorial Trust in Britain has put up memorials for 44 officers, our National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial in Washingon, D.C. has over 20,000 names inscribed on it.  On average, the US loses an officer in the line of duty 154 times a year.  There are 57,892 assaults on law enforcement officers in the US, on average annually, resulting in 15,483 injuries.[4]  Assaults on officers in the UK were nowhere near as frequent.  According to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) Annual Report from 2009/10 there were 7,794 assaults against officers with minor or no injuries sustained, 382 with serious injury, and zero fatalities.

Violent crime in the U.S. accounts for 4% of all total crime.[5]  Sounds pretty low, right?  But when you consider that still is over 400,000 charged offenses of violent crime – to include murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault – it’s still a daunting number.  It is hard to compare these statistics to those of the UK because the classification of crimes and manner of reporting is quite different and it is hard to create an “apples to apples” comparison.  However, the U.S. homicide rate is four times that of the UK.[6]

Are the numbers black and white?

They are; at least how they’re collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Crime statistics from 2012 show that whites are charged with 69% of all crime and blacks 28%; but when it comes to violent crime, whites account for 59% of those charges and 38% are black offenders.5  These numbers were consistent with statistics tabulated from 2009 as well.  And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population in the U.S. is comprised of 77% white alone and 13% black alone.  This indicates a disproportionate accounting of crime toward a minority population.

So does this mean that the police inherently fear black people more than white, as has been claimed in the wake of the Ferguson ordeal?  Recent studies say no; although they also don’t pretend that the interaction is completely colorblind either.  Researchers Dr. David Klinger (a former police officer) and Dr. Richard Rosenfeld from the University of Missouri – St Louis have looked closely at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police’s use of firearms over the past decade.  There have been 230 officer-involved shootings in that time period with the officers only hitting their target 50% of the time (which says something about training needs, but that’s for another article).  The composition of the SLMPD is approximately two-thirds white and one-third black.  Perhaps not so coincidentally, the race of the officers involved in the shootings correlated with the department population.[7]


The trigger-happy police theory

The shooting of an unarmed man would lead one to believe, at least superficially, that the shooter is “trigger-happy.”  The claims against U.S. police along these lines, at least in part, have said that since we are armed we are more likely to use that level of force.  There have been those that have applied the same logic to our “military” tools, ie. Bearcats and gas masks.  “Since we have them, we feel an obligation to use them, even when it isn’t really necessary,” is how the logic goes.  Presumably, they think the same of our sidearms, thus the belief that we would be better off if we policed more like our UK counterparts.

But consider the death of Mark Duggan in 2011 in England, which sparked riots and five people died.  Duggan was identified by police as a gang member and drug dealer.  He was under investigation for planning an attack and possessing a firearm.  Duggan had been under surveillance by Operation Trident, a special operations division of the Met, and was stopped as a passenger in a taxi.  Duggan had attempted to run and police opened fire on him.  The police, believing he was armed, perceived a threat (although the actions of Duggan to spark that threat are unclear), and reacted.  No firearm was found on Duggan, although the one he was believed to have possessed was found in close proximity to where the taxi was stopped, leading police to believe he ditched the gun just prior to the stop.

Duggan was black.  Operation Trident had been created to tackle gun violence in black communities.  The “unarmed” shooting of Duggan caused a backlash of violent protests leading to arson and deaths.  Race relations with UK police were already strained prior to the Duggan shooting, attributed predominately to the Broadwater Farm riot in 1985.  However, they boiled over with Duggan when police officers involved in the incident met prior to making official statements on the shooting, creating “a perception of collusion.”[8]

Of course it isn’t the first time UK police have been subjected to scrutiny in their shooting of suspects.  Consider the 2005 death of Jean Charles de Menez on board an underground train at Stockwell.  de Menez was thought to be a suicide bomber wearing an explosives vest.  In light of the concerns, and following a failed bombing attempt the day prior, shooting was authorized and de Menez was shot multiple times in the head.  It was later determined that not only were there no explosives on de Menez, but he had no connection any bombing attempts.[9]

In 2001, Andrew Kernan was shot dead by Merseyside Police in England after responding to a call from Kernan’s mother who was concerned for her schizophrenic son and said he was aggressive.  When police arrived, Kernan ran from his mother’s flat into the street dressed in his pajamas and wielding a Katana.  After cutting off the side mirror of a police car and 25 minutes of failed negotiation with Kernan and unsuccessful deployment of CS gas, officers fired two shots which killed him.  Kernan’s mother, Marie, was quoted as saying, “You don’t kill somebody with a mental illness.”[10] 

This seems quite similar to the events within days of Michael Brown’s death when officers of the 6th District of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department responded to a call of an emotionally disturbed person, Kajame Powell, whose conduct was so erratic as to cause a store owner to phone police.  When police pulled up, Powell charged them armed with a knife and the two officers opened fire.  Powell was also black and it only spurred the Michael Brown protestors in their belief that the police are all too quick to pull the trigger on black people.

Shoot, Don’t Shoot

Last year an experiment at Washington State University in Spokane provided interesting insight into this question.  The experiment used 102 people of mixed backgrounds – police officers, combat veterans, and civilians.  They were placed in random realistic simulations of confrontations of 60 scenarios and armed with laser-firing pistols.  The subjects’ responses to the scenarios left black suspects less likely to be shot at than white suspects.  “The subjects consistently hesitated longer before firing at black suspects and were much more likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed white suspect.  And when they failed to fire at an armed suspect – a potentially fatal mistake – the suspect was about five times more likely to be black than white.”7  Interestingly enough, the study’s 36 police officers were the exception to this.  The researchers concluded that for the police officers, “the suspect’s race wasn’t a factor in their decision not to shoot.”7

Dr. Klinger believes race does play a factor, but not in the way most believe.  “White officers are much more reticent to shoot a black man than a white man because, all things being equal, they know the social context in which they’re operating,” he says.7

Where do we go from here?

My guess?  Round and round. 

Policing is a unique job.  It is more than enjoying a cup of coffee in the local QuikTrip or Circle K, although sometimes that is all the public sees.  I have two standard responses when someone would make a snide remark about me taking a break somewhere – “I’m just so good at this job I make it look easy,” and “98% of the time I’m grossly overpaid, it’s the other 2% where you couldn’t pay me enough.”  There are decisions that have to be made in a split-second.  Not all are matters of life or death, but plenty are; and even in the lesser instances, the implications of those decisions can be profound – the elimination of a person’s liberty, the mark of a criminal history, the impact of a fine.  Each decision an officer makes throughout his 8, 10, or 12-hour shift has to be done with careful consideration, but without the luxury of time.

About a month after the Ferguson incident, a SLMPD officer working secondary in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis shot and killed a black male who opened fire on the officer.  The black male was on probation for weapons offenses and possessed a fired at the officer with a stolen gun he possessed.  Instead of there being recognition that bad people do bad things and the police are responsible for addressing that with support for the police officer’s actions pouring in, politicians fell silent and protestors from the Michael Brown shooting felt reinvigorated, igniting more property damage and rioting in the Shaw neighborhood.

As I write this, Cleveland deals with the unfortunate death of a 12-year old who pulled a BB gun on an officer who responded by shooting and killing the youth.  He was commanded to put his hands up and instead the youth pulled the gun from his waistband, a gun which had the orange safety indicator removed.  The Ohio legislature’s reaction is, as expected, superficial.  They’re considering legislation to make BB guns required to be painted a bright color, because as no one who would remove the safety marker would think to paint the whole gun to look like a real one.

It is easy to look at something with hindsight and possess knowledge not available in the moment.  The politicians will continue to do that.  They will continue to patronize and do what they think will garner their next vote, while compromising the good of the whole – as has been done in Ferguson where they’ve interfered with the ability of the police to secure the safety of Ferguson residents.  And they’ll continue to put together feel-good commissions to recommend changes to the way we police, as Governor Jay Nixon has done, without the will to tackle the issues that would substantially make a difference.  They will continue to fail to invest in education, concentrate on family planning and development, or address mental health issues because those are difficult and costly tasks.  It’s much cheaper and convenient to find a scapegoat.

[1] Kelly, J. (2012, September 19). Why British police don't have guns. BBC News Magazine.

[2] There Are Too Many Victims Of Gun Violence. (n.d.). Retrieved November 23, 2014, from

[3] Ealing police knife attacks suspect questioned. (2010, December 16). BBC News. Retrieved November 10, 2014, from

[4] (n.d.). Retrieved November 19, 2014, from

[5] Crime in the United States 2012. (n.d.). Retrieved November 19, 2014, from

[6] Trigger happy Britain? How police shootings compare. (2014, January 9). Retrieved November 18, 2014, from

[7] Wines, M. (2014, August 30). Are Police Bigoted? Race and Police Shootings: Are Blacks Targeted More? The New York Times. Retrieved November 18, 2014, from

[8] Mark Duggan death: Shooting 'not rigorously examined' (2014, June 4). BBC News London. Retrieved November 18, 2014, from

[9] Verkaik, R. (2005, October 21). Shot dead by police 30. Officers convicted 0. The Independent. Retrieved from

[10] IPCC Concludes Andrew Kernan Case. (2005, September 1). Retrieved from http://www.ipcc.ogv/uk/news/pr220905_kernan.htm

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