Warrior Cops: Why US Police Shoot So Many People

Warrior Cops: Why US Police Shoot So Many People
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Australian-born Justine Damond was infamously shot and killed in Minneapolis by US police in July last year after innocently approaching their car. In Australia, far fewer people are killed by police firearms than in the US – even after taking population size into account. We look at what’s causing this huge disparity.

After eight months of investigations, charges have been laid against Mohamed Noor, the police officer who fired the shot that killed Australian life coach Justine Damond in Minneapolis just before midnight on July 15 last year. Noor turned himself in to Minneapolis authorities on March 20 after a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Originally from Sydney, Damond made a 9-1-1 emergency call to police, reporting that she thought she had heard a woman’s screams outside her home. She approached the police patrol car when it arrived, only to be killed seconds later by a bullet fired by Noor.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman reported Noor had been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He said:

There is no evidence Noor encountered a threat, appreciated a threat, investigated a threat or confirmed a threat that justified his decision to use deadly force. [He] recklessly and intentionally fired his hand gun from the passenger seat in disregard for human life.

Let’s put to one side the facts of this case, because the legal process is yet to reach a conclusion – and, until that time, Noor enjoys the presumption of innocence. Let’s instead use the tragedy of Damond’s death to look more broadly at the issue of keeping the public safe from the reckless use of police firepower. Let me offer some observations comparing the US and Australia in this regard.

US police officers are routinely armed. So are Australian police. But there is a marked difference between these countries in relation to fatal outcomes.

No-one can be certain exactly how many people are killed by police firearms each year in the US because there is no single repository for this information. The Washington Post newspaper counted 963 fatalities in 2016. A public interest group, Fatal Encounters, estimated 1,500 people were shot by police each year from 2013 to 2015.

Let’s take a conservative approach and agree the number to be 1,200 deaths per year. The US has a population of about 326 million In Australia, on average, around six to eight people are killed by police firearms each year. We have a population of 24 million.

This means that a civilian is about 12 times more likely to be shot and killed by a police firearm in the US than by a police firearm in Australia. Why is there such a marked difference?

The literature tells us the number of civilian deaths caused by police firearms varies according to the standard of police firearms training, the rules that pertain to the police use of lethal force, and the gun culture in the society in which officers operate, including the level of militarisation of police forces.

There is little doubt that firearms training suffers when there are multiple providers and the lack of a common centralised provider. This is important in the US context, given that there are some 15,000 police commands in that nation.

In contrast, we have only eight police commands across Australia, namely the police departments of the six states, the Northern Territory Police, and the Australian Federal Police.

Also, the rules pertaining to the deployment of police firearms in Australia are extremely demanding. In contrast, American police officers need only have a “reasonable belief” that a firearm should be deployed.

Finally, there is little doubt that the gun culture of the US is a factor in police shootings of civilians. Officers in the US are primed to expect a gun on any routine encounter, given US citizens’ ready access to firearms. Indeed, a significant percentage – perhaps as high as one-third – of US households has access to a gun. Only about 6% of Australian householders own a firearm.

How do we prevent ourselves going down the path that the United States has taken? The answers are straightforward. We must continue to insist on high standards of accountability and training for those who have access to lethal force.

We should continue to champion non-lethal alternatives, too, and not lose sight of the value of best-practice negotiation skills, and training in high-level communication techniques. And we must continue to foster strong collaborations between police and mental health professionals.

It is imperative that each jurisdiction keeps up-to-date data on the circumstances in which police firearms are drawn and deployed, and when and where deaths occur. It is also imperative that we do not water down Australia’s gun control laws, in place since the Howard government’s strong policy stand in 1996.

Finally, it is sometimes suggested that police should have the benefit of a more liberal “shoot-to-kill” policy. Any such move should be fiercely resisted. The shooting of Justine Damond provides a tragic yet valuable lesson that a “warrior cop” mentality is inevitably counterproductive to the task at hand.

Rick Sarre, Adjunct Professor of Law and Criminal Justice, University of South Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


    • Yeah, there’s no racism here in Straya, and it’s not like the race angle would be played up if an officer was Sudanese or something, and it’s also just a big coincidence that the police dog crews search aboriginal people at a disproportionately high rate, and the fuss over immigration is all about economics and has nothing to do with race.

      • Source? I was under the impression that the dog crews are basically deployed when you have a criminal doing a runner regardless of race.

        Finally, there is little doubt that the gun culture of the US is a factor in police shootings of civilians. Officers in the US are primed to expect a gun on any routine encounter, given US citizens’ ready access to firearms.

        I think quite honestly this has the absolute largest influence on the number of police shootings in the US. When you go into *any* police encounter, even something as simple as a traffic stop for a speeding ticket you’d absolutely have to be thinking “they might have a gun and try to shoot me”. And when you start looking at more “risky” calls like the case where Diamond was shot (disturbance in an alley, sounded like a woman screaming and sounds of a struggle) it’d be even more on their minds.

        As opposed to Australia where the majority of encounters the police can reasonably expect NOT to find a citizen with a gun.

        • Ever notice on traffic stops how the police will come up to your window and be slightly behind you near the pillar? Much harder to shoot when they are there vs right next to the window. Not on their mind here but they are still taught that way.

          • Not sure that’s why (though it could be). Most times if you’re pulled over the cops are behind you so that’s a natural position for them to approach from.

          • It also keeps them away from traffic as usually the stop is made on the side of a busy road. Spending as little time as possible next to cars is a major reason for moving between the cars, off the road.

    • Objectively, Somalians haven’t done much to ingratiate themselves to the population of the upper midwest. Also objectively, the upper midwest has a lot of entitled racists with bones to pick.

  • “Police are primed to expect a gun in America”, this is essentially exactly what I commented on a Philly D video over the weekend (and subsequently got called a moron for by another viewer, ‘merica)

  • In some ways, I don’t blame the cops for being trigger happy with the number of guns in the country. That’s not to excuse the killing of innocent people. I just imagine it would be difficult knowing a large % of people they encounter on the streets are armed.

    • By the numbers, roughly 6% of the adult population is licensed to carry firearms, half that number actually does. Combine that with the number of estimated illegal firearms being carried and you bring the total to ~4.5M out of 120M. That’s not a “large percentage” by any definition.

      The police in the US are generally sourced from the military after their service is up, and the government encourages a military mindset among them where everyone is a potential threat, arming them accordingly (at this point, everything short of tanks). The concept of “protect and serve” is a thing of the past.

  • That there isn’t even a single authority or department counting the number of people killed by police in the US each year shows just how much they care.

    I’d also assume another difference is that the handful of people killed by police in Australia each year are armed criminals* killed by an officer genuinely fearful for their lives. In America you’ll get shot for holding a phone in your hand.

    *or people with mental health problems likely to harm themselves or others.

  • As an American living in Australia I can tell you I see a difference. In the U.S it’s a lot of factors but the way police are trained to shoot first instead of using non-lethal methods is ridiculous. Their attitude assumes right out of the gate that you’ve done something wrong and it’s often coupled with powerful ego trips and sense of power. I got pulled over once for biking home through a park too late and the first thing they asked me when I gave them my license is “Are we going to find anything on you?” I can’t imagine if someone got pulled over and they were more suspicious of them than they were of me that evening. And if anyone tells you discrimination isn’t a factor they don’t know what they’re talking about. Maybe it isn’t prevalent in every single case but when cops can shoot a person of color in park while literally stepping out of their police car you know there is something wrong with the system. And they’re code to protect each other garners more loyalty than their sense of justice. Maybe they expect people to be armed when they approach them but there are so many cases of police shootings where the person wasn’t carrying more than a cell phone in their hands.

    • The whole “only carrying a cell phone in their hands” thing is part of the gun control issue. In Australia a police officer is going to see something in a person’s hands and will probably assume it’s a phone (or similar) rather than a gun because we have such a low amount of gun ownership and more rigorous controls (handgun ownership is really tough). In contrast if a cop sees a person with something in their hands in the US they *know* there’s a lot more guns around so they’re assuming (fearing) the worst and treating it like a gun.

      Think about it, you see someone with something dark or metallic in their hands, if it’s a big phone then it’s a good match size wise for a handgun. Add it other factors, like being dark, or moving quickly, or distance, or psychological ones like expecting to be dealing with a criminal and it’s no surprise that phones get mistaken for guns.

      I honestly, don’t think the cops are to blame (in most cases) when the elephant in the room is everyone potentially being armed.

  • Its the endless loop of escalation over there that is causing this. The population does not trust the cops so they get more powerful guns. The cops then get worried about being killed so are more likely to shoot first think later and then the process repeats.

    The US police forces are not solely responsible for this situation. American society at large holds some responsibility and seems to not want to do anything about it thanks to that 2nd Amendment they misuse.

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