Few things are more harrowing than watching a video of a police officer confront a person in emotional crisis armed with a knife or other similar object. The officer almost always points a gun at that person and yells, “Drop it!” If staring down the barrel of a gun isn’t enough to give a person pause, yelling at him or her is unlikely to make a difference.
If that person advances on the police officer, gunfire often results. Each year, American police officers shoot and kill well over 125 people armed with knives, many of them in this manner.
The public has grown impatient with seeing the same approach produce a predictably tragic result. In response, Chuck Wexler, the director of the Police Executive Research Forum, has released a guide to reducing the frequency of such incidents. At a national conference for chiefs of police in Chicago recently, he showed three videos to drive the point home: desperate people with knives met by officers who pointed guns and yelled in return.
In each case, the person grew more distressed, advanced out of a desire to be shot and was shot. Everyone suffers when this happens: the person in crisis who gets shot and may well die; the officer who will experience lifelong trauma and doubt, and his or her family and loved ones; and a community that feels it failed to help a person in need.
One of the problems is that we teach our police officers to lead with the gun. We tell officers that a knife or a shard of glass is always a lethal threat and that they should aggressively meet it with a lethal threat in return. But doing so forecloses all of the better ways to communicate with a person in crisis. There are alternatives.
Imagine being an unarmed police officer — like the ones in Iceland or Britain — in the same scenario. Barking orders as you stand there empty-handed would not only seem unnatural but also absurd. Your instincts would tell you to stay a safe distance away, try to contain the person, and calm the situation.
American police leaders can learn from their unarmed colleagues. Police academies should ingrain a wide range of skills, drills and responses in trainees before they ever handle a firearm. Training should start by sending officers into scenarios where they have to solve problems without recourse to lethal force.
Unarmed officers will cultivate an instinct to de-escalate: They will keep a safe distance, they will try to assess the true level of threat rather than see a weapon as a cue to rapidly escalate, and they will communicate in ways that reach people. There is good psychological research on what type of communication stands the best chance of calming people in distress, regardless of what is in their hands. And it is certainly not yelling at them or threatening their lives.
Only during the final phase of a police academy should trainees be presented with a firearm and taught how to use it. Officers should be taught that their weapons protect not only themselves and the public but also the life of the person who is armed and in distress,because they provide a means to stay safe if a calm and reassuring approach fails. By the end of academy, the officers will have learned that yelling at a person as you threaten to shoot is a panicked, last-ditch effort, not a sign of competence.
I lead the police force in Burlington, Vt., one of the nation’s most progressive cities. One of our City Council members recently suggested that we should explore ways to disarm our city’s police because it would prevent them from killing people and force them to approach crises differently.
In America, this idea is a non-starter. Police officers being rendered helpless to respond to mass shootings and other gun violence puts a community in danger. But if the police profession doesn’t want politicians broaching these ideas, we owe the public a commitment to doing everything we can to respect the sanctity of life. We should fundamentally change the way police officers view their guns.
America’s abhorrent rate of gun violence means that the police need the equipment and training to meet even the most lethal threats. But we have the opportunity to stop this mind-set from infecting their approach other situations. Our nation’s police departments should read Mr. Wexler’s guide and take its recommendations seriously.
Going further by training officers to act as if their weapons are insurance policies, rather than persuasive devices, will transform the nation’s police work. Every American will be made safer by police officers whose first instinct is to communicate with the people they encounter and whose success lies in getting the psychology of persuasion right.
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