A Most Difficult Conversation

UnknownBeginning a most difficult conversation: Do all police need to be armed?

Years ago the report of the President’s Crime Commission addressed the deteriorating relationship between police and African-American citizens. Their recommendation was to establish police-community relations units, for police to get closer and listen to the communities they served. They also recommended the hiring of more officers of color, and to establish three tiers of police: Police Agents, Police Officers, and Community Service Officers (CSOs).

Police Agents, were to be college degreed, team leaders, and handle the most complex of police situations, Police Officers were to collaboratively work with them. Both, however, were to be armed. But CSOs were not. Instead, they were to provide support to armed police officers and work in situations where being armed was unnecessary and, as the thinking went, be more able to work closely with the community. It was anticipated that many CSOs would come from the diverse communities they policed.

A good example of that is the St Paul Police Department’s recent decision to hire a young Somali woman as a CSO to their growing Somali community. [See my blog last year on this.]

A recent article in the The Washington Post, “Do Britain’s Gunless Bobbies Provide Answers for America’s Police?,” described the two levels of police in the U.K. The majority of constables in the U.K. are unarmed, another smaller group is  specially trained to carry firearms. The article described an intensive training regimen for armed officers that appeared to be way above the training level our own police undergo. This article got me thinking about a that uncomfortable question, “Do our police need to be armed in every situation?”

Having been a police officer for many years I have a knee-jerk reaction to this question: How could we? I mean, this is gun-toting America, we have this strange frontier relationship with guns that defies understanding and, therefore, places police at a higher risk than officers any other country. Many citizens not only own a gun in America, but they own a small arsenal of them. Police must deal with those folks everyday; in fact, many of them friends and neighbors.

Nevertheless, I believe we are at a point in time when we must re-think and re-examine whether or not every one of our police officers with needs to carry a firearm on duty. 

Stay with me. In the late 1960s, the department I led was one of the few that employed CSOs. They were unarmed and they conducted many supportive duties in our community. One of them was traffic enforcement. Yes, we had young college students, in uniform, without a firearm, making traffic stops, writing tickets for moving violations, and investigating accidents without incident.

Another experience occurred later in my career, within months of taking over the Madison department I was presented with the strategy of assigning unarmed officers to police a large student drinking party which had a past history of violent confrontation with the department. This recommendation came out of planning group of younger officers who had, after thinking through their mission to keep the peace during this event, made this recommendation.

At the time, I had to deny their request. I  was a new chief and I was simply too worried to take a chance. As it was, the officers chose to work singularly, appearing relaxed, engaging, and without hats (which was, at the time, a strict department requirement) won the day, even while armed, and prevented the violence that had characterized the event for many past years.

I would not like to see the decision to be unarmed during certain situations imposed from above, but rather that police officers themselves, along with community members, would discuss whether or not certain duties and events could be policed more effectively by unarmed officers and/or officers in non-military dress (see my blog on this the topic of uniforms).

I know this is a volatile subject, but I hope it gets police and citizens thinking about alternatives and generate some honest discussion about the duties of police and the critical relationships they have with their community.

This came to mind again last month when I observed a march consisting of about 100-150 persons protesting the decision of a district attorney not to charge an officer who took the life of a young man of color. The march came out of a very tense time in this city with images of Ferguson deeply etched in everyone’s mind.

During the march of about 100-150 persons, mainly young people of color, the monitoring officers chose to stay away and not walk with the demonstrators as they had done during past events like this.

As the march processed six to eight blocks to the county courthouse, police were appropriately controlling cross traffic at intersections, but they did not walk closely with the marchers. [Perhaps that was a conscious decision by the department — thinking a close presence would antagonize a group protesting them?] As it was, everything worked out well and no arrests were made or property damaged during the more than two-hour event.

Nevertheless, in this heightened age of police militarization, is it now time to have a conversation and discuss alternative strategies, as to whether or not every police officer in America must carry a firearm. Would this have been the kind of event in which unarmed police in non-military uniforms would have been welcomed?

CLICK HERE to find five countries that have unarmed police some of which have many firearms in the population.

  • Is this a topic in which we can have a serious discussion? I think it’s necessary if we are to move forward as a nation.