Recent local, tragic events have ended with police officers killing people they encountered with mental illnesses or stopped for minor infractions of the law. These seemingly disproportionate outcomes have motivated efforts to reform the police. The Half Moon Bay City Council is considering restrictions on how the police operate here.
Are these local events a symptom of a larger systemic problem, police violence, or events that no change in policy can prevent? Will a reform do any good? Are police killings a symptom of increasing social violence or a cause of it?
Let’s not conjoin the murder of George Floyd by the murderous police officer Derek Chauvin with recent police-related deaths here on the Coastside. Police reforms are needed to deal with the mentally ill or the erratic behavior of some people when they are confronted with their misdeeds. Better training or policy reform would not have spared Floyd. Weeding out from the ranks of police officers like Chauvin is clearly needed too. Harsh behaviors and abusive attitudes have no place in police work. Black Lives Matter. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of circumstances.
A friend who is a prosecutor on the South Side of Chicago recently told me that domestic violence calls and traffic stops are the leading cause sending people on parole back to prison. Traffic stops and domestic disturbance calls often reveal infractions of parole restrictions, for example owning a gun or using drugs. These are automatic return tickets to prison for people on parole, despite rational pleas that gun ownership has become a necessity in many crime-ridden neighborhoods in America today.
If we change policing rules to prevent escalations when people lose self-control, what do we do when subsequently violent individuals have been treated too lightly? Another mass shooting claimed nine lives in San Jose recently. Neighbors and friends are now asking why the killer’s guns had not been taken away. Police are blamed for not being vigilant enough and for over-reacting. The punishment for jaywalking should never be death, and madmen must have their guns taken away. It is human nature to look for a cause when bad things happen, but it is easier to affix blame than to prevent bad outcomes.
A recent study of dangerous professions, jobs where people die at work, found that policing is 22nd on this list. The risky jobs in terms of odds of death while working are in construction and delivery jobs. Traffic accidents and falls are leading causes of on-the-job deaths. What are the professions in which people die most frequently due to the violent acts of others? Only two: police and supervisors die at the hands of other people. In sheer numbers, police are more often murdered on the job than managers. For most weeks over the last two years, at least one officer has died, murdered while policing, each week. Guns play a major role in police officer deaths and in the epidemic of gun violence in America. Last year, on average, someone died by gun violence every 12 minutes in the United States.
For every 100 Americans, there are 120 guns in the U.S. today. No other nation on the globe is as well armed as we are. American culture today is a violent culture. In terms of gun-related deaths, we rank with economically troubled nations and nations at war with neighbors or themselves.
The militarization of police in America today is as tragic as it is wrong. There can be no doubt it must be stopped. Enforcing the rule of law is police work, it is not a job for the army. But if we want to reform the police, we must also reform our nation’s gun laws. We can require licenses for guns and gun owners; a license is not an infringement of liberty. We can ban assault weapons as they have in Canada and in the rest of the modern world. Until we face up to the challenge of gun violence with sensible regulation, reforming the police will not reduce the systemic violence Americans are living with today.
Jim Larimer lives in Miramar.