I’ve said before that cops have a tough job. I know that as well as anyone who hasn’t done the job could possibly know. I grew up around it and still keep tabs on it as best as I can.
Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t really know it. They think they do because they watch police shows on TV, but they don’t really understand the challenges or hazards of the job.
Now, that’s true of every job. Everyone thinks they know the job but doesn’t. However, when someone tries to tell me how my career works, they’re usually not proposing things that will get me killed. That’s precisely what some are suggesting for police officers, though.
A year has passed since the most notorious police murder of a Black man this century, and so little has changed. With each week, the public learns that yet another unarmed Black man has been killed by the police, more often by gun than by knee. Some will find my characterization too reductive; the circumstances of a police encounter matter, they will say. But it is the simple truth. About one Black man in 1,000 will be killed by a police officer, and nearly 1 in 5 of those men will be unarmed.
Police chiefs who wish to serve and protect—or, short of that, to keep their jobs—must be open to significant operational changes. Here’s one: Make it harder for officers to access firearms.
In the field, a loaded handgun is rarely more than inches away from a police officer’s fingertips. This is true even when the officer is responding to a cat stuck in a tree, a car that has stalled in an intersection, or a teen with a spray can. Yet most of the tasks that officers perform pose little to no danger to them. While granular data can be hard to come by, three police departments, all covering urban areas, have granted public access to statistics breaking down officer activity. These data reveal that officers spend only about 4 percent of their time responding to crimes of violence.
We must face up to the possibility that the near-constant presence of firearms is doing more harm than good. Not only to the countless people who have lost loved ones to a police bullet, but also to those who love the officer who shot it. Police who are involved in shootings frequently experience trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, and the emotional consequences can be far worse when the shooting is accidental or based upon a mistake.
There are undoubtedly moments that police officers rightfully need firearms, and the hard question is how to limit access to those moments. Technology provides a means: Guns could be kept in smart lockboxes.
Using this mainstream and relatively inexpensive device, police dispatchers or qualified police personnel could remotely grant in-the-field officers immediate access to the contents of a lockbox. Under a new policy, remote access could be granted only when officers are responding to suspected crimes of violence or other similar dangers. For ordinary encounters, like routine traffic stops, the box would remain locked. As a fail-safe, officers could immediately override locks to respond to unforeseen and dangerous emergencies, but doing so would trigger mandatory review by an independent body. Under those circumstances, officers would face sanction if they failed to satisfy the body that the override was justified. Simply put, this policy could change the default setting of policing from lethally armed to unarmed.