– Police killings have increased in the last month to an average of 3 people per day.- Police are trained as ‘warriors’ in military-style training that emphasizes shooting without hesitation.- Officers are not equipped to “serve and protect.” They are equipped to protect their own lives.- Robert Evans is an investigative journalist for Bellingcat and has worked as a conflict reporter in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.- This is an opinion column.The thoughts expressed are those of the author.In June of 2020 I was reporting on a protest in downtown Portland, Oregon, when a woman with a machete charged into view and started lunging erratically towards people.
I was just a few feet away.
Images of the 2017 fatal stabbing of two Portlanders by a right-wing extremist flashed through my head.I was carrying a concealed handgun that day, but I did not draw it.Instead, I watched as several activists, some still half-blind from tear gas, deescalated the woman.It turned out she was homeless and paranoid that members of the crowd might mess with her stuff.
People talked her down, and no one was harmed.A few months later, Philadelphia police shot Walter Wallace Jr.dead .Video of the event showed a man in a mental health crisis, waving a knife.
He was several feet away from officers when they fired roughly a dozen shots into his body.People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other citizens.Denver recently launched a program to replace all police officers with healthcare workers for calls involving substance use and mental health.In its first six months, all 748 calls were handled without arrests, or any police help whatsoever.
In February, Portland launched the Portland Street Response (PSR) team to assist people having mental health crises without involving police officers.Less than two months later, Portland Police showed up to confront a man in Lents Park, one of the neighborhoods served by the PSR.Police say they showed up due to reports that this man had a gun.Witness reports indicate the man was having a mental health crisis .
Shortly after arrival Officer Zachary DeLong shot the man dead .
One replica handgun with a bright orange tip was recovered on the scene.Police officers often frame their job as “serve and protect”.But a look at their most popular training programs reveals a different focus: a “warrior” mindset and the application of deadly force without hesitation.
Police kill citizens because they are trained to shoot US police have killed more than three people per day since the start of the Derek Chauvin trial, on March 29.This represents a slight increase from the rate of police homicides calculated by the American Public Health Association in 2018.
In all, American police officers kill around 1,000 citizens every year.This makes them responsible for about 8% of all adult male homicide deaths in the United States.
Police shootings kill roughly twice as many Americans as mass shootings do, every single year.It would be tempting to blame this on the surge of violent crime in cities .But police homicides in US cities have actually fallen in recent years.That decline has been more than made up for by increased police killings in suburban and rural areas .
Police are not killing citizens because violent crime is out of control.They’re killing citizens because that’s what they’ve been trained to do.Officer Zachary DeLong was deployed to Afghanistan as an Army Ranger before he joined the Portland Police.Open-source investigation has revealed that, since 2013, he has received more than 300 hours of firearm training and a little more than 16 hours of mental health-related training.
He arrived at Lents Park very prepared to kill.He was less prepared to deal with mental illness.Defenders of law enforcement will note that 83% of people killed by police are armed.But that statistic is based on claims made by police officers.
A member of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force recently admitted in court that he and other offices regularly carried fake guns to plant on innocent people.A few weeks ago, Chicago Police Officer Eric Stillman shot and killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo.An attorney with the Cook County State Attorney’s Office claimed Toledo was holding a gun when he was shot.Video evidence later proved his hands were empty and raised when Stillman fired.
Only about 20% of police officers are military veterans, but most police academies today follow a “military model,” meaning they are organized like a boot camp.A 2016 national study of police training revealed that, on average, officers receive 168 hours of training in firearms, self-defense and use of force.
They spend only nine hours on conflict management.Homelessness and substance abuse training is so rare it did not register on the data set.Almost half of the unarmed civilians killed by police in the US are either under the influence of narcotics or experiencing a mental health crisis.”Maintaining the edge” Many officers see themselves and their men as ‘warriors’, and they prefer to spend their training time on ‘warrior’ skills .
Senior police officials often refer to their officers as “troops” and, thanks to the Defense Department’s 1033 program, more than $7 billion worth of military equipment has been transferred to 8,000 law enforcement agencies.Most of this equipment goes to small town and rural agencies, the same places where police killing of civilians is on the rise.
All this gear, and the huge amount of armed training that comes with it, has one purpose: “maintaining the edge”.This is a term used by scholars in the Journal of Criminal Justice writing about police culture.They defined “maintaining the edge” as, “the ability of officers to display their authority.In their contacts with the general public, officers come to believe that they can minimize the potential danger they confront, as well as properly displaying their coercive authority, by always being prepared or ”one-up” on citizens.” Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore cop who teaches at John Jay College, explained to Vox that: “To let down that edge is perceived as inviting chaos, and thus danger.” In recent years police training has come to focus myopically on ensuring officers are constantly prepared to do violence at a moment’s notice.One of the most popular police trainers in the United States is retired Lt.Colonel David Grossman, founder of a field of study he calls “killology”.Grossman trains officers not to hesitate before opening fire.He and other trainers play haunting videos of police officers shot dead during traffic stops to drive home the point that being slow on the trigger is basically a death sentence.
“Hesitation” to kill has become one of the greatest sins a modern American police officer can commit.When Officer Eric Stillman shot unarmed 13-year-old Adam Toledo dead, he was following his training in a very direct way.In 2013 Law Enforcement Targets Inc.launched a line of “No More Hesitation” shooting targets that featured armed children, pregnant women, and elderly people.The targets were removed after a public outcry, but while they were available the company provided this explanation for why they’d been created: “I found while speaking with officers and trainers in the law enforcement community that there is a hesitation on thepart of cops when deadly force is required on subjects with atypical age, frailty or condition (one officer explaining that he enlarged photos of his own kids to use as targets so that he would not be caught off guard with such a drastically new experience while on duty).This hesitation time may be only seconds but that is not acceptable when officers are losing their lives in these same situations.” Most police officers will never take fire The reality is that the average police officer only spends 4% of their time responding to violent crime.
Roughly 1 in every 6.5 million traffic stops ends with the felonious killing of an officer.Law enforcement fatalities have been dropping since the 1970s , and police officers are much likelier to die from accidents than ambushes.
Children, like Adam Toledo, are virtually never cop killers.One study of cop killers from 2013-2014 found only one underage assailant: a 17-year-old.Roughly 245 out of the nation’s 800,000 police officers are shot every year.The vast majority of our police will never take incoming fire.Yet they train for violence with such obsession that not killing is actually something that can end an officer’s career .In 2016 Stephen Mader of Weirton, West Virginia was the first responding officer to a call about a suicidal man with a gun.The man, RJ Williams, did have a gun.But Mader quickly determined he was not a threat.
He was trying to talk Williams down when other officers arrived and immediately shot Williams to death.Mader was fired ten days later.His termination letter read: “The unfortunate reality of police work is that making any decision is better than making no decision at all.” This perception of an ever-present threat has led American police to adopt an attitude towards the people they are supposed to protect that is disdainful and openly contemptuous of dialogue.During last May’s Black Lives Matter protests, NYPD Lt.Robert Cattani knelt alongside activists.
The outrage this generated among his fellow cops forced him to make a precinct-wide apology: “The cop in me,” he wrote, ” wants to kick my own ass .” A police officer in the United States is three times more likely to kill an unarmed civilian than his counterpart in Germany, and 10 times more likely than his peer in the UK.Under President Biden, military grade arms continue to flow to local police agencies.And if recent events are anything to go by, escalating unrest in the streets is only winding military and police forces tighter together.The National Guard were deployed to Minnesota immediately after protests started in the wake of Daunte Wright’s killing.In Philadelphia, the governor activated the Guard ahead of closing arguments in the Chauvin trial.
Again and again, the fear felt by police officers is prioritized over the life and freedom of civilians.Military grade technology and “warrior” training all too often strips everything but violence out of situations that require nuance.Every day our police act, and look, more like an occupying army.Eventually, the American people may start to treat them like one.Robert Evans is an investigative journalist for Bellingcat and has worked as a conflict reporter in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine..