[Originally published in The Guardian]
eople in America always ask me what police officers do in the UK without guns. They find it hard to comprehend how you can enforce the law or get people to comply without the threat of a gun. I tell them I find it weird and disconcerting that police officers in the US carry guns, particularly when I hear about the various accidents that happen as a result.
In fact, I would go a step further. I would simply take the guns away. It may be time to really rethink the point of police officers routinely carrying guns. At least then this type of incident would not happen. Tasers, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated and employing multi-shot capabilities, are already lethal weapons which can kill as well as stun. Should those not be enough?
One of these "accidents" is currently the source of intense upset and was the reason for several large protests in Oakland, California. Last year, millions of people watched cellphone videos captured at the scene of the shooting and killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by police officer Johannes Mehserle on a train station platform in Oakland. We watched in horror as we saw an unarmed Grant, lying face down with a police officer's foot in his neck, shot in the back by Mehserle, a transport officer.
Mehserle, who was yesterday found guilty of involuntary manslaughter – a charge that carries a maximum, laughable four-year sentence – claims that he did not mean to shoot Grant, mistaking his Taser for a gun. That is one of the reasons why I am deeply thankful that police officers in the UK do not carry guns.
"Oops, I didn't know" has become a refrain that I have unfortunately heard too often while living in the US. Each year has brought another major incident, usually featuring a police officer who has shot and killed a young black person by accident. Just recently, it was seven-year-old Aiyana Jones. Last year it was Oscar Grant. In 2006 it was Sean Bell, who was riddled with bullets on the day before his wedding. All accidents. And these are just the ones that reach national attention.
People all across America are upset, disappointed and angry about the Oscar Grant verdict, which many see as symptomatic of a much deeper issue. They want to know why this type of accident only seems to happen to black kids. It's hard to remember the last time a police officer accidentally killed a young white person. Why do unarmed black people statistically overrepresented when it comes to police shootings?
When discussing this online, some people said that it is because black people commit more crime and so are perceived as armed and dangerous. Yet even if that is the case, that is still so troubling. This means that in theory any black person is a potential target to be shot and killed, just because there are a small minority of us who commit crime. We are all a potential Oscar Grant.We need police officers to react to what is happening in the moment, not to what they think they know about people based on prior experience. On occasions it is great that in situations of intense stress, conscious thought takes a back seat and allows for quick, subconsciously driven, gut-instinct level responses. But it can also be fatal when the subconscious thoughts do not line up with reality. Police officer training must entail encouraging officers to examine, uncover and unpack their subconscious notions and ideas about people to ensure that these are not what they are reacting to in the heat of the moment.
The public looks to the police for protection, yet if a trained law enforcement officer cannot even tell the difference between a Taser and a gun, what hope for protection is there? Perhaps without guns, police would have to be more creative and rigorous when it comes to getting their jobs done. At least this way, we'd have less cases of police firing now and apologising later.