I was never a fan of President Ronald Reagan and can proudly say that I never voted for him. But he did possess an ability during his time in office for communicating a hopeful tone to the American people. They used to call him “The Great Communicator.”
One of his most famous rhetorical flourishes focused around his belief that when he thought about America, he felt that it was that “shining city upon a hill.” Reagan borrowed the analogous quote from John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, who upon setting sail for New England in 1630, reflected on his hopes for what would come to signify American exceptionalism; that we would be the moral compass and example for the rest of the world.
Let’s say that these days, that “shining city” is beginning to look more like an abandoned town, with rubble and burned out facades dotting the landscape. The precipitous fall from grace is breathtaking in scope.
Out of all the madness, however, the American spirit of protest and making our voices heard is alive and well. We can at least hold our heads high when it comes to that aspect of our troubled democracy. The people are pissed, and rightfully so. We’ve seen enough of the extinguishing of our black brothers and sisters on the United States streets and simple lip service that things must change is not enough.
Of course, we must change the culture of our policing in America. We’ve known this for quite some time now. There are many ideas on how to do this, and some are quite striking in their scope. When the city council of Minneapolis votes to disband, dismantle, and start from scratch their entire police department, perhaps we have reached a tipping point.
But going forward, this is not going to be easy. We should brace ourselves for more chaos, division, and uncertainty. Because if there’s one thing that separates this country from most civilized Western democracies, it’s America’s obsession with guns, and in turn, the violent nature of our society in general. If we ignore that signature point, we do so at our own peril.
Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to disarm police departments throughout the country? Oh, of course, we’d have to have an armed segment for extreme situations. Still, in a perfect world, our police would be part of the community, there to assure we’re adhering to the laws of the land, but who’s first inclination is to de-escalate the situation, not inflame it.
This concept is not crazy talk, at least if we look to some of the other countries around the world who have nowhere near the number of people, especially those of color, who perish at the result of police misconduct. We’re the cream of the crop when it comes to that dubious distinction.
There are reasons for this, not the least of which is our violent culture and history of deep racial mistrust and animosity between the police and the African-American community. Other countries that do a better job of policing do not have this kind of history. Many, such as Japan and some of the Nordic countries, are more homogenous. There’s not the diversity and cultural differences in those countries that we experience in America.
But, when it comes to policing in general, it’s way past time to start looking at how our friends overseas are doing the job, and ask ourselves why we can’t do it here?
When it comes to training, we do not measure up compared to other countries. For instance, in Germany, police recruits are required to spend two and a half to four years in basic training to become an officer, with the option to pursue the equivalent of a bachelor’s or master’s degree in policing. In America? On average, it can take as little as 33 weeks when you combine field and classic training.
The problem with that is that if you’re only spending roughly 21 weeks in classroom training, you don’t have enough time to master the concepts of crisis intervention or de-escalation techniques. According to Paul Hirschfield, associate sociology and criminal-justice professor at Rutgers University, “If you only have 21 weeks, naturally you’re going to emphasize survival.”
There’s much more restraint exercised when it comes to policing in most European countries. It’s the norm, not the exception. For example, some countries, such as Finland and Norway, even require police to seek permission before shooting anyone. In Spain, police have to provide verbal cautions and warning shots before resorting to lethal force.
And let’s face it, in most European countries, the police are regarded in society along the same lines as a doctor, lawyer, or teacher. They’re also paid better and trained longer than their American counterparts.
The numbers do not lie. Police killings in America dwarf those occurring in other civilized societies across the globe. For example, to put it in perspective, between 2002 and 2017, adjusting for each countries average population, there were 71 police killings per million people in the U.S.; 3.2 per million people in Iceland; 1.5 per million people in Finland, and 0.8 police killings per million people in Norway (Snopes). Similarly, there were 36 police killings in all of Canada in 2017; 14 in Germany; and in England and Wales, 3 in 2018.
Yes, the examples above are from mostly white countries. And yes, most have generous social safety net policies who’s populations consistently rank near the top in overall happiness and contentment in global polling year after year.
But let’s get real here, folks. While the racial disparity and cultural differences set us apart from many of our European and Asian friends around the world, there’s one thing that stands out above all others: our love of guns. That’s right, we Americans own more guns than anybody in the world. The latest estimates put the overall civilian gun cache around the world at roughly 857 million. How many of those do Americans own? 46%, which comes out to about 393 million, according to the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey (SAS).
It’s the guns, stupid.
How can we expect de-escalation from our police departments when there are so many firearms floating around on the streets of America? Is it any wonder many of these departments are more than happy to accept hyper-militarized machinery from the federal government via grants and other programs? How can you police the streets and practice de-escalation when the starting point for everything is that the civilians have as much, if not more firepower than you?
Until we as Americans come to grips with this phenomenon, I don’t see how we can ever move forward. The Second Amendment folks will never allow gun confiscation. They’ll yell, scream, and be the squeaky wheel that continues to hold one of our political parties hostage. Hell, we can’t even get a universal background check bill passed. Over 80% of Americans want such a measure. So much for representational democracy, I suppose.
I’m hopeful, yet deeply skeptical that things are going to change as quickly as we want. The problems within so many of our police departments are so deep and systemic; it’s going to take sustained pressure by millions of people in the streets to get the change we so desperately need. Maybe we’re up to the task, perhaps not.
But the glorification of firearms in this country is what sets us apart from others around the world. They must look at us and wonder what the hell is going on. Can we ever have a police force like they do in the U.K. where bobbies still patrol the streets, absent guns on their hips?
Indeed not when hundreds of small men in fake military gear can march to governor’s mansions with assault weapons proudly displayed for all to see. Not when this is seen as acceptable behavior by a sizable portion of our population. And certainly not when that behavior gets celebrated by a particular television network and other false patriots.
In theory, the solution is simple: remove or severely reduce civilian gun ownership; de-militarize, disarm and retrain our police to de-escalate first – and use force as a last resort.
In practice, however, this is America. We love our firearms way too much.
It’s the guns, stupid. It’s always about the guns.