Why Cops Shoot
May 19, 2001 9:52 PM   Subscribe

Why Cops Shoot Police columnist Fred Reed gives practical examples of simulated situations that provoke gunplay. "Test yourself in a dark alley." Maybe the men in blue aren't as brutal as you think.
posted by Erendadus (15 comments total)
This type of material is why I came to Metafilter. Erendadus has exposed me to material that I never would have come across on my own. Reed's "Why Cops Shoot" column reminds me of some of Dave Barry's serious columns; there's a little bit of humor sprinkled in among the weighty concerns.

Then I looked at the titles for some of Reed's other columns: A Codpiece for Hillary, Diaper Rash In Academia and How Star Trek Turns Your Brains to Grits.

To me, these columns seem to have the appeal of Dave Barry for the more conservative reader. They're poking fun at easy targets like Hillary, the Ivory Tower Gang and Trekkies. I don't think they're a blueprint to live life the conservative way, but rather just goofy fun. What do you think?

My initial impulse is to groan at the rhetoric that I don't agree with, but I'd rather hear why you like Reed, Erendadus. What is the appeal of his column to you? I genuinely want to know if you feel the "Why Cops Shoot Column" was insightful for you. What about the rest of Reed's columns?

posted by JDC8 at 10:38 PM on May 19, 2001

I'm not a cop, never been one. But those "examples" seem pretty far-fetched and unrelated. I'm infering that the point of the article is to dismiss allegations of police brutality as "all in the line of duty". Except- well jeez, for most of those examples are misleading at best. I should think the officer should be positioned mostly behind something, like his squad car, so that he will have more reaction time. The officer who walks to 10 feet from a suspect with a gun in plain view isn't the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Arresting a suspect isn't a game of Egyptian Rat Screw, where the only penalty for a false shooting is putting your top card at the bottom of the pile. The penalty for a false shooting is the killing of an innocent civilian, and I'm of the opinion that cops should be putting their lives on the line for those innocent civilians, not gunning them down in the street because they have a license to kill.

First, I do believe a cop should be shot at before he shoots back, excepting cases where there is a clear and demonstrable need to take down a suspect who is armed and threatening to the officer or bystanders ("I thought he had a gun, but it was just his wallet" doesn't cut it). That's why they made kevlar, and give cops radios to call for backup.

Second, in regards to the columnist- well crap, he writes for the Washington Times! The Times is as decidely political as a paper can get, although at least this particular columnist is- as JDC8 notes- a satirist and thus less problematic than most media outlets. At least with satire, you know where someone is coming from, and they aren't trying to cloak their political viewpoint under the guise of unbiased coverage.
posted by hincandenza at 11:04 PM on May 19, 2001

As a journalist, I've done ride-alongs and gone through an abbreviated police academy, and while Reed's examples are a little set-up, his basic point is dead on. Someone attacking you with a knife (yes, a knife) from 20 feet away can get it in your gut before you've had the chance to pull the trigger. Cops fire their weapons (on average) fewer than ten times in their entire career. They go through tons of training, but much of that is designed to keep cops in one piece, not the suspect. I've been through the simulation training; only the best cops get through without getting shot or shooting someone innocent. In their simulations, hesitation will get you killed. But can we ask them to train to meet only incompetent criminals?

Kevlar only works where it covers, and radios are slow, at best. What cops need is a reliable, non-lethal stun gun. But then they'd fire it with reckless abandon.

By the way, of the cops I have known, 75% are good people who want to make their community better. The rest are arrogant pricks on a power trip. And that 25% are always the first to draw their guns.

There's no point here, these are just things I thought I'd add to the conversation.
posted by chino at 11:23 PM on May 19, 2001

As a black man (God knows we have had "issues" with the police), I may be naive but I tend to believe most cops are honest people trying to do a good job in a crazy messed up world. They basically have to assume that everyone is out to get them. And the scary part is, they're usually right.
posted by owillis at 1:58 AM on May 20, 2001

Nicely put, owillis. While I don't agree with the actions of some policemen, I believe that most are just doing their job, which is an invaluable service. There are others, however, that get carried away in thge awesome power that society has bestowed upon them.

If you were a policeman wouldn't you be paranoid?
posted by ttrendel at 2:48 AM on May 20, 2001

I fully support the police and respect the tough job they have for such little pay. Honestly, I believe less than 5% are bad apples. But that doesn't mean we can't demand accountability when one makes a mistake. What ever happened to "to serve and protect"? Now it seems to be to profile and contain, which comes down from the leadership and the FoP. WACK!
posted by roboto at 3:26 AM on May 20, 2001

O.K. children, let's try another experiment.
Pretend that you and a bunch of friends are NYPD cops. Then ask a black friend to play the suspect, for the sake of realism: tell him to freeze, then pretend to start shooting. How many times can you guys pull the trigger before you find out the black suspect's actually unarmed? More than 41 times, or less than that?
I just love this Charles Bronson type of journalism, don't you?
posted by matteo at 9:12 AM on May 20, 2001

This story on PrimeTime was interesting because it was basically a sweeps stunt where they gave cops in LA/NY "lost wallets" to see how honest the cops would be in returning them. They asked people on the street how many wallets would be returned, everyone said the cops would take at least "some" of the money and wallets.

The cops returned every single wallet.
posted by owillis at 9:49 AM on May 20, 2001

The San Diego Union-Tribunes's search engine didn't turn anything up but I remember reading an article in the UT in the last 6 months where they invited people from the various groups complaining about police brutality to use the department's training simulator, which had scenarios like the ones in the article. There were quite a few simulated deaths for cops, civilians and innocents and more than a few criminals got away. Almost everyone seemed to come away with a realization that police work is harder than they'd thought.
posted by adamsc at 11:00 AM on May 20, 2001

To be fair, the cops who shot Amadou Diallo were using semi-automatic pistols which fire off several shots as the trigger moves in each direction (as I understand it -- I don't claim to know squat about guns). It's likely that the cops pulled the triggers on their guns 3 or 4 times rather than ten times each.

Police brutality does not exist in a vaccuum. One may not be comfortable prescribing the conditions under which a cop may discharge his weapon (though we have a collective responsibility to cops, criminals, those likely to fall under suspicion, and everyone else to try to do so) but one must examine the question of why although crime is not overwhelmingly Black in America, victims of the criminal justice system are.

In any case, it seems clear to me that if a cop takes an innocent life, the cop should be held as responsible (if not more) for doing so as any citizen would be.

And I still think we can avoid all of these problems if we just disarm cops.
posted by sudama at 11:02 AM on May 20, 2001

To amend earlier sentiments of mine:

I appreciate that cops have a ferociously difficult job, and sometimes a hair trigger response is necessary. But we're still hearing justifications about running at them with a knife. The truly controversial cases are ones where the suspect wasn't attacking, but was still gunned down where they stood.

Most cops are hard working. [Outside of LA] most cops are probably pretty decent, honest people. How their trained, how they are directed to do their jobs, isn't always they're fault (the Seattle Mardi Gras riots had the ridiculous spectacle of lines of cops on the fringes of these mobs, doing nothing because they were ordered to stay on the fringes)

As roboto noted, that cops unfortunately shot someone who was innocent is a tragedy, but we can't just pretend it didn't happen- people don't get out of jail because they didn't mean to kill someone with their car. Hopefully, a nonviolent restraining method (such as that phaser I've heard about that disables without maiming or killing will be available, and will be used as the first line of defense.
posted by hincandenza at 11:21 AM on May 20, 2001

sudama - semiautomatic pistols, like the police use, fire exactly one bullet each time the trigger is moved toward the handle of the gun, and it only fires in response to movements in that direction. Each firing requires a full cycle of pull (bang) and release. This is the definition of "semiautomatic."

41 bullets is 41 separate pull and release cycles.
posted by NortonDC at 11:59 AM on May 20, 2001

The police force has a thin line to walk. Yes, it would be nice if every officer were trained to give up their own life rather than risk firing on even one unarmed civilian. Unfortunately, if police were so trained, nobody would want to be a police officer. Not for very long, anyway, and certainly not for the salaries they currently get. Enforcing the law would become orders of magnitude more dangerous and, thus, orders of magnitude more costly.

Now of course one can make the case that mere economics should not determine how the law is enforced, that individual liberties far outweigh any potential increased monetary cost. Unfortunately this is an argument founded more in theory than in reality. In the real world we are forced to trade liberty for security every day, despite Franklin's platitude, and this issue is merely a highly visible and extremely deadly reminder of this ongoing social conflict.
posted by kindall at 12:43 PM on May 20, 2001

I will be brief.

In any case, it seems clear to me that if a cop takes an innocent life, the cop should be held as responsible (if not more) for doing so as any citizen would be.

I absolutely feel that cops should be held more responsible. Police work is extremely dangerous and extremely stressful. I wouldn't do it for any amount of money. But when you accept the badge and gun, you have to accept the possibility that your life is in danger. It is a risk you take--and you should have to take that risk. The benefit of the doubt should always lie with the citizen.

Too often, cops look at things as if they're fighting a "war" against criminals. The fact is, it's not a war. Everyone isn't armed, and everyone isn't there of their own accord. Amadou Diallo, to cite an overused example, was neither.

I don't feel that any cop should die because he hesitated to make sure his "perp" was really armed and dangerous. But much more so, I feel that innocent civilians should be protected from cops with quick triggers.

Mistakes will always happen, but I feel that we should err on the side of protecting innocent civilians and their rights, as opposed to protecting the voluntary police force.
posted by jpoulos at 12:45 PM on May 20, 2001

"I absolutely feel that cops should be held more responsible."

Equal protection under the law. A policeman is a citizen, answerable to the same laws and enjoying no privileges that a non-policeman enjoys.

That's in theory, of course. There are always considerations made for different occupations in order to make society work more efficiently. Concomitant to these considerations are the expectations that certain people afforded certain privileges will act in ways that are more in accord with the ideals of society rather than with the norms of society.

I don't worry if a policeman drives above the speed limit because he's the guy I expect to go into the dark alley in pursuit of the armed suspect.
posted by joaquim at 10:55 AM on May 21, 2001

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