Cases like the shooting of Michael Brown test the limits of when police can turn to their guns. But even law enforcement experts and authorities who question the shooting of Brown stand by the U.S. policy that police sometimes must open fire.
Take the case of Kajieme Powell. He was shot dead by police a few days after Brown in Missouri for reportedly carrying a small knife and acting erratically after police called to report that he had stolen some sodas and a pastry from a convenience store. Video capturing the footage from start to finish shocked Americans, but some experts say the shooting was standard American practice. “All of my training and all of my background tells me that is a justifiable police shooting against it looks like a mentally ill young man,” said David Long, a criminal justice professor who conducted firearms trainings for federal agents.
But is the current American understanding of deadly force the only option? The United Kingdom provides a strikingly different example. By the most conservative estimates, there were more than 400 shooting deaths at U.S. law enforcement hands in 2012. In the UK, that number was zero. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of UK victims of police shootings was 33. And British citizens are about 100 times less likely to be shot by police, according to the Economist.
That’s because the United Kingdom takes a dramatically different approach to guns. Most police in the United Kingdom don’t carry guns most of the time. This difference in policy is in part justified by the fact that most United Kingdom citizens don’t carry guns, either. And that means cops are less likely to be killed than they are in the United States.
So it’s obvious why police believe they need a gun to deal with a suspect who also has a gun. But even in the United Kingdom, citizens carry many other dangerous weapons, including knives. “We do clearly in certain parts of Britain have a problem with knife crime,” said Tim Newburn, a professor of criminology at the London School of Economics.
ThinkProgress asked Newburn how British cops handle suspects who, for example, were carrying a knife like Powell. “There are a number of things that might happen,” he said. For one thing, he acknowledged that sometimes police who fear particular danger from a suspect might call in back-up officers with guns to provide increased protection. But that’s the exception rather than the rule. “In the main I think they would generally seek to deal with that circumstance in a different way,” he said. Two first-level options might be negotiation or attempt to disarm the person. In the instance of Powell’s shooting, officers started shooting seconds after exiting the car, on the rationale that a person with a knife can lunge at you in even less time than that.
Another tool he said British cops are very likely to use as an alternative to a gun is a Taser, a less-lethal weapon intended to immobilize suspects without killing them, although they do occasionally lead to death — particularly when misused.
“It would be much more likely under that circumstance I think that the person with the knife would be Tasered,” Newburn said.
Tasers were developed on this very rationale: that they could incapacitate suspects deemed to be a threat without killing them. But many don’t perceive them as a magic bullet. Long, the American use of force expert, noted that Tasers don’t incapacitated suspects all of the time quickly enough, so they might not save officers who believed they were facing death.
But a 2008 study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice explained that Tasers are very effective at distances of 15 feet or less, and instances when the tool fails are often when the subject is too far away. “My sense is that police have most of the weaponry, as it were, that they need,” Newburn said of British officers.
Even the British police force uses guns occasionally. But Newburn noted that there are a number of adverse consequences from having all officers carry guns all of the time and to feel empowered to use them. For one thing, the officers’ own guns are frequently used against them. A 2013 study found that 10 percent of officer fatalities were of officers shot with their own guns. It’s hard to know in how many more cases officers deploy their own guns out of fear that a suspect could use their firearm against them. But we do know that in the case of Michael Brown, officers are at least claiming Brown was trying to take their gun — not that Brown had his own.
Perhaps the most self-evident adverse consequence is what Newburn calls the “potential for overreaction.” “We have seen in the not too distant past cases in St. Louis and elsewhere where it’s hard to see that it was advisable or necessary,” Newburn said. Most who study police shootings agree that fear is a primary motivating factor, particularly fear of other guns. In other recent police shootings, police killed individuals because they mistook a watering hose, a Wii remote, and cell phones for guns.
Japan provides a different sort of contrast, because officers do carry guns. But almost no one else does. Police are also given more training than in the United States, and place a heavy focus on martial arts training because police “are expected to use [firearms] in only the rarest of circumstances,” according to David Kopel, who studied Japanese gun control. The message seems to be working, because Japanese cops have killed just one person in the past six years, according to the Economist.
Even the United Kingdom is not free of police shooting controversies. In 2011, the country erupted in protests that spread throughout all of England over the fatal shooting by special armed police of Mark Duggan, a young black man. But even a comparison of those 2011 riots and those in Ferguson this week told Newburn something remarkable about the differences between American and British policing. For one thing, the Duggan shooting was one of just a few nationwide over the course of many years, while Brown’s is representative of an epidemic.
But “[w]hat, from a British vantage point, offers the starkest contrast is the pictures of highly militarised policing in Ferguson,” Newburn wrote in the Guardian this week, referring to the tear gas, tanks and assault rifles that permeated the small town. The White House committed this weekend to review the flow of military-level equipment to local police departments. But the gradual militarization of U.S. police may also have contributed to how officers use their guns. In Long’s view, the shift toward a militaristic mentality started with the War on Drugs, which “basically gives police a carte blanche to do what they want and get away with it.”