How Can You Police Without Weapons?

Most Americans probably take it for granted that police officers carry guns; after all, how else could they protect and serve the public? But given the high incidence of police killings, many are wondering if armed law enforcement does more harm than good — or at the very least, if it is even necessary.

As a recent article in Quartz points out, several countries, such as Finland, Germany, and Spain, heavily restrict an officer’s ability to fire his or her weapon, while other go even further and prohibit their police from carrying guns — namely Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom.

In the case of New Zealand and the U.K., law enforcement were stripped of firearms as far back as the late 19th century, under the justification that armed police are “antithetical to the values of civil society” and undermine their “authority to protect, not to oppress, the public.” For its part, Iceland, where one third of the population owns guns, reasoned that disarming officers helps to keep the peace “by consent, rather than through the explicit threat or use of force”.

All that is fairly fascinating reasoning, but how does it work in practice?

Well for starters, most of these countries have low crime rates, and what comparatively little crime does occur is usually nonviolent. So addressing the root socioeconomic and cultural causes of crime and violence would probably go a long way towards eventually making armed law enforcement unjustifiable.

Nevertheless, violence still can and does occur in these countries, and police are trained to anticipate and respond to such incidents, up to and including using a firearm during certain situations (such as a report of an armed suspect). Therein lies the core distinction between the U.S. and nations with unarmed law enforcement:

Paul Hirschfield, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University, points out that U.S. police officers are trained for an average of just 19 weeks. Compare that to police in Norway, who have three years of training before they’re fully qualified.

“If you only have 19 weeks of training, you’re going to spend those on the most essential things. Unfortunately, in the United States, it’s about what you need to defend yourself. How you’re going to avoid getting hurt”, says Hirschfield. “If you have three years, you can also learn how to protect people, how to avoid these situations from arising in the first place. It fosters a whole different orientation and culture in law enforcement.”

Police in other countries are generally trained to de-escalate hostile situations and use minimal violence in response to a threat.

In other words, the lack of weaponry basically forces officers to find nonviolent solutions to emergency situations, using violence only as an absolute last resort (and again, usually with a select unit of armed specialists deployed strictly for such a purpose). This is in line with several other studies finding that unarmed police help to deescalate situations and build mutual trust between law enforcement and the community.

Another article published in Quartz earlier this year explored this idea:

Gregory Smithsimon, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, argued in a recent article at metro politics that arming police tends to feed violent interactions in marginalized communities. “Police demand respect, civilians resent disrespect, and interactions become confrontations that escalate into mistreatment, abuse, and violence,” Smithsimon writes. Pointing to the example of St. Louis police officer Darren Wilson, Smithsimon notes that the addition of weaponry can accelerate confrontation. “Wilson could have continued on his way,” he says. “But the gun on his hip gave him the possibility to escalate with Michael Brown.”

uns aren’t just a danger in and of themselves. They enable a policing philosophy built on violence and forced compliance, rather than one founded on respect, trust and consent. That philosophy affects every police interaction, even those that don’t involve actual shooting.

“Even if disarming the police only reduced police shootings and not other police homicides, it would be a historic improvement,” Smithsimon tells Quartz. “But I suspect that taking guns out of the equation in police officers’ everyday interactions would improve police-civilian relations, like the kind that Eric Garner experienced repeatedly.” Garner sold loose cigarettes on the street in New York and was frequently hassled by police. In July 2014, he was killed when officers put him in a choke hold.


“U.S. police wearing their gun all the time has an important ideological effect,” Smithsimon tells Quartz. “It makes police feel like they are never civilians, never normal people, that they’re always cops, and that they’re never safe without a gun. I don’t think that’s the most productive frame of mind for civilians who are charged with keeping our cities safe and calm.”

So even in societies that are not as small, homogenous, and peaceful as Iceland or Norway, disarming police can ostensibly work.

However, selling this idea to both governments and the public is a whole other story. With so many millions of guns out there (both legal and illegal), and a high (though declining) rate of violent crime, the thought of policing with firearms sounds absurd — which is why no local government, let alone a state or federal institution, has ever seriously considered this approach; even the smallest and seemingly most peaceable towns employ at least a handful of armed officers.

Indeed, an article in The Conversation that also explores the disparity in the U.S. and European policing found that the “brutalization” process runs both ways: just as armed police may elicit fear, distrust, and hostility among the community, an armed and violent citizenry only reinforces police officers’ willingness to turn to violence.

Acquiring guns illegally in the US is not much harder. About 57% of this year’s deadly force victims to date were allegedly armed with actual, toy or replica guns. American police are primed to expect guns. The specter of gun violence may make them prone to misidentifying or magnifying threats like cellphones and screwdrivers. It may make American policing more dangerous and combat-oriented. It also fosters police cultures that emphasize bravery and aggression.

Americans armed with less-lethal weapons like knives – and even those known to be unarmed – are also more likely to be killed by police.

Less-lethal weapon holders make up only about 20% of deadly force victims in the US. Yet the rates of these deaths alone exceed total known deadly force rates in any European country.

The article also cites endemic racism, hyper-individualism, and deeply rooted resentment towards government as reasons why both government officials and the public at large seem so tolerant of and aggressive police tactics. Racism is perhaps the most commonly identified culprit, although it does not account for the fact that even white Americans are far more likely to die from police shootings than their counterparts across the Atlantic, or why deadly encounters with law enforcement are high in mostly white areas like Montana, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Therein lies another surprising and novel culprit: the localized nature of most policing in the U.S.

Each of America’s 15,500 municipal and county departments is responsible for screening applicants, imposing discipline and training officers when a new weapon like Tasers are adopted. Some underresourced departments may perform some of these critical tasks poorly.

To make matters worse, cash-strapped local governments like Ferguson, Missouri’s may see tickets, fines, impounding fees and asset forfeitures as revenue sources and push for more involuntary police encounters.

More than a quarter of deadly force victims were killed in towns with fewer than 25,000 people despite the fact that only 17% of the US population lives in such towns.

By contrast, as a rule, towns and cities in Europe do not finance their own police forces. The municipal police that do exist are generally unarmed and lack arrest authority.

As a result, the only armed police forces that citizens routinely encounter in Europe are provincial (the counterpart to state police in the US), regional (Swiss cantons) or national.

What’s more, centralized policing makes it possible to train and judge all armed officers according to the same use-of-force guidelines. It also facilitates the rapid translation of insights about deadly force prevention into enforceable national mandates.

At this point, the Conversation article overlaps with Quartz in observing the higher standards by which most European officers operate under — Spain’s national guidelines require cops to “incrementally pursue verbal warnings, warning shots, and shots at nonvital parts of the body before resorting to deadly force” (whereas only eight U.S. states have such a requirement), while Finland and Norway “require that police obtain permission from a superior officer, whenever possible, before shooting anyone”. Centralized standards mean that every community, regardless of its size, wealth, or social and demographic makeup, ostensibly gets the same sort of treatment.

Now, none of this is to say that these other countries have spotless records of police conduct, or that the wide range of differences in culture, demographics, and socioeconomic variables don’t account for at least some of the disparities in policing methods. But that is not reason enough to disregard these case studies, or to fail to apply at least some of these policies to the many cities, counties, and states with comparable social and demographic profiles.

Moreover, the psychological and sociological data that support less violent policing is largely translatable to American society — most people, regardless of nationality, feel uncomfortable in the presence of an armed agent of the state, and any law enforcement agency subject to rigorous standards of training should subsequently be more professional and competent; it is not as if Americans are somehow immune to higher standards of performance if properly trained and educated.

What are your thoughts?

Unfettered Internet Access Declared a Human Right

This past June, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a nonbinding resolution in June that defines free and open access to the web is a human right and in strong terms “condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to our dissemination of information online”.

The four page document, which you can read here (PDF), takes a broad view of the Internet’s importance, from its empowerment of “all women and girls by enhancing their access to information and communications technology” to “[facilitating] vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally”. It even affirms how the expansion of telecommunications technology has the “great potential to accelerate human progress”, an observation most denizens of the Internet Age can attest to. Continue reading

The Symbolic Passivity of the Term President

When the Founding Fathers of the United States set about forming a new nation, for obvious reasons they wanted to ensure that the executive could have neither the potential nor the pretensions of tyranny. So in addition to setting in place all of the checks and balances we learn are integral to the U.S. political system, they made a conscious effort to devise a new and unusual term for their head of government: President, derived from the Latin prae- “before” plus sedere “to sit”.

Up until that point, a president was someone originally tasked with presiding over (e.g., sitting before) a gathering or ceremony to ensure that everything runs smoothly. It was largely limited to academia, and was hardly an authoritarian position — which of course was precisely the point. The executive of the United States was not vested with anything more than the power to help enforce the laws of Congress, and to essentially preside over a system of power wherein the people, via their representatives, governed themselves.

(Interestingly, several countries, such as Germany and India, have offices of the president that are truer to the original etymology of the term: their presidents are mostly figureheads with few actual powers in paper and in practice.)

Granted, all this was pretty idealistic and aspirational, and as we all know, the office of the president has not always been true to its original spirit; indeed, even back then there was debate as to how much authority or power the president should have, and it was not long before presidents of all political stripes started pushing the boundaries of executive power. But it is interesting to see how even semantics could be an important consideration in formulating a political system.


Brief Reflections On Why So Many People Care About Brexit

It is fascinating to see how many people are taking an interest in Brexit and the European Union as a whole. Up until then, one rarely heard the media, let alone the average American, give much attention to the E.U. or its various issues and dynamics. Generally speaking, we Americans tend to be an insular lot, and our interest in the world is usually limited to conflicts, the actions of rivals or enemies, or the saga of U.S. citizens abroad.

I suspect much of what is driving our interest in the event is the fact that 1) it involves a culturally similar country for which most Americans have an affinity and familiarity with, and 2) that Brexit and the E.U. as a whole represent debates and issues of universal relevance: sovereignty, integration, xenophobia, nationalism, globalization, popular will vs. representative politic, and so on.

Continue reading


The 25th of May

Today marks the May Revolution of Argentina, a national holiday commemorating the start of the eight-year war of Argentine independence. Inspired by the revolutions of the United States and France, Argentina would ultimately become of one of modern history’s earliest republics, setting in motion a series of other independence movements throughout the Western Hemisphere.

The above painting, by Chilean artist Pedro Subercaseaux, depicts the “open cabildo”, or assembly, that occurred on May 22, 1810 and led to the decision to establish a new government. Continue reading

Conceptual Progress

It is easy to take values like freedom and democracy for granted, and that speaks volumes about how good we have it (at least in some parts of the modern world). For the overwhelming majority of human history, across almost every society, ideas like individual liberty, human rights, and equality were not even conceived, let alone practice.

In the approximately 200,000 years that homo sapiens have existed, only in the last three thousand or so years did such concepts even emerge, and even then they were quaint ideas limited in scope and agree — the ancient republics of Athens and Rome still had slavery and the disenfranchised women, as did the republics of the United States and France.

We are fortunate to live in a time when we have higher aspirations and ideals to live up to. People speak of realism versus idealism, but at least better values and principles exist to be attained, if even only conceptually. It was not that long ago that the very idea that slavery was morally monstrous, that women were fully humans, that children warranted rights, and that people should have a say in their governance, simply did not exist in the minds of even the most heightened intellectuals, let alone the largely impoverished and illiterate masses.

We have come a very long way as a species, even if we have an even longer ways to go.

The Globalization of Plutocracy

According to a 2015 paper by American political scientist Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt University, the gap between the rich and poor — and the subsequent unresponsiveness of government to the needs of the majority — is not just a feature of United States, as a multitude of studies have revealed. The struggle between the haves and have nots seems inextricably tied to our species, varying only be degree.

For example, in almost every nation Bartels studied, the wealthy were generally and categorically opposed to social spending, even during bad economic times. Continue reading

Who, or What, is to Blame for Inequality?

Over at the Washington Post, columnist Matt O’Brian reveals how inequality has less to do with a small class of super wealthy elites, and more to do with the structure and culture of many big U.S. companies

The easiest way to think about this is to think about the different types of inequality. There isn’t just inequality between everyone, but also between everyone at a single company. Why does this matter? Well, if CEOs really are gobbling up a bigger and bigger slice of the profit pie, then inequality within society at large should have increased because inequality within companies increased. But that’s not what happened. The research team of Jae Song of the Social Security Administration, Fatih Guvenen of the University of Minnesota, and David Price and Nicholas Bloom of Stanford were able to look at what had previously between private earnings data for every company between 1978 and 2012—the best data we have so far—and found that the pay gap between executives and their own workers had barely changed during this time. What had changed, though, was the pay gap between every worker at the highest-paid firms and everyone else. In other words, inequality exploded because the top 1 percent of companies were making more and paying all their employees more. This was true across the country and across industries.

It is not entirely clear why this is the case, but one hypothesis is that technological innovation has made every industry “winner-take-all”, meaning it is easier than ever for the most ruthless and resourceful companies to dominate a particular market. This explains the rise of global behemoths like Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook, all of which lack any true competitors in their respective industries.  Continue reading

Voter Turnout By Country

According to a 2015 report by Pew, the United States had one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the developed world OECD,  with only 53.6 percent of voting-age people taking part in national elections in 2012. Only Japan, Chile, and Switzerland ranked lower.

Voter TurnoutThree of the countries with the highest voter turnout — Belgium (No. 1), Turkey (No. 2) and Australia (No. 5) make voting mandatory, as do mid-ranking nations like Greece (No. 12), Mexico (No. 18), Luxembourg (No. 26), and France (for Senate elections only; No. 13).

If you are wondering why countries with compulsory voting nonetheless have a gap between voting turnout and voting registration, there are various explanations, such as the law not being enforced (as in Greece) or absent voters being allowed to offer a justifiable excuse and/or pay a fine (Australia).

As for why the U.S. fares so poorly despite being one of the world’s foremost republics, there is no shortage of explanations. Many allege that it comes down to how difficult it is to actually vote — the registration process is relatively more complex than in other democracies, and national votes take place on a single non-holiday weekday. Others say it has to do with growing disaffection with, and subsequent apathy towards, politics. Still others assert that voter turnout is not really all that low to begin with.

All that said, do you think voting should be mandatory? Is it a civic obligation like jury duty and taxes, or is it best left to individual to decide, even if it means less civic engagement in the aggregate. What are your thoughts?

Source: The Washington Post

How Cicero’s Political Campaign is Still Relevant Today

What does it say about the nature of human political life that analyses and advice dating from the first century B.C.E. is still applicable today? Stripped of its cultural and historical context, the Commentariolum Petitionis, or “Little Handbook on Electioneering”, which was ostensibly written to the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero by his younger brother, Quintus, can just as well describe contemporary American politics.

For example, it starts by outlining the importance of connections and patronage networks — especially among the wealthy and elites of society — for political advancement. Continue reading