Eric Garner’s murder has made it really clear that there’s something wrong with the way police use deadly force. Cops are in a hard position, though, because their entire approach to working with people is predicated on our awareness that they can kill us.
That’s why they can demand absolute compliance and most of the time receive it. That’s why they make people nervous during routine interactions. That’s why people so callously blame unarmed victims of police shootings for their own murders. Well he shouldn’t have resisted arrest, they say. They don’t say the second part, but we all hear it anyway: because everybody knows noncompliance is deadly.
Think about it – what’s a cop without a gun? At best, a community safety officer; at worst, just a power-tripping tax collector.
This hints at a major problem: police wear too many hats. They are a pseudo-military force that responds to terrorists, armed lunatics and dangerous criminals. They are peace officers who respond to domestic violence, noise complaints and child abuse. And they are tax collectors who will fine, cite and ticket according to the mandates of their bureaucratic leadership.
Those are three very different roles and they require three very different levels of training. The answer is so painfully simple: break it up. You don’t need a gun for the majority of police work. And if you’re inadequately trained for any part of police work, you will unnecessarily endanger people.
So let’s have a branch that is extremely well trained in the use of deadly force as an absolute last resort and also trained in and equipped with several less than lethal options. Let them be the specialists who deal with the truly scary shit that most people can’t imagine dealing with. Let’s not muddle this training or discipline with too many duties. Let the people who use deadly force be so good at it that they rarely need to.
And let’s give the beat cops, the people conducting the majority of police work, extensive, exhaustive training in deescalation techniques, nonviolent crisis intervention, and information about the populations and issues that they deal with so they can really stand up for trans people, rape victims, autistic folks, people of color, and others. Oh, and now that the first group is really well-trained and disciplined, the beat cops don’t need guns. If they don’t feel safe with that, they can call in for help, but without guns they’re going to really hone those deescalation techniques. And without guns, maybe they can earn back some of the community’s trust. Without guns, they just might not even need guns.
As for the fines and tickets…we already have meter attendants whose job is simply to attend meters. They don’t kill anyone. So let’s remove these tasks from the regular duties of the other two roles so they can focus on their more specialized work.
We can agree that police need more training, but it’s not as simple as that. You can’t be an expert soldier, an expert at peaceful conflict resolution and an expert at municipal codes all at the same time. Demanding these three roles out of one group of people is setting them up for failure at the cost of the lives of people of color, transgender folks and mentally-ill people.
Any reform that proposes simply adding more training or more responsibility to the already overburdened officer is simply a political maneuver. To really attack this problem, we need to reimagine the very nature of police work.