Under the Gun

Can the U.S. take a cue from other countries to vanquish the violence?

By Kristi Evans

Portrayal of a police man as a lego figure

 

A series of highly publicized police shootings of civilians has generated community unrest, spawned social movements such as Black Lives Matter and prompted calls for radical changes in law enforcement protocol. Some media attempting to dissect the events have suggested that the United States should take a lesson from five Western countries—Britain, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand and Norway—where officers are unarmed while on patrol and violent crime is rare in comparison. The headlines included, “American police kill more people in one day than Norway cops have in 9 years.” Another stated, “U.S. police killed more people in the first 24 days of 2015 than police in England and Wales did in the last 24 years.”

But many contend it would be counter-productive for America, with its firmly entrenched gun culture, to follow the example set by those countries and “disarm” law enforcement. They argue that U.S. police confront more violence perpetrated by criminals with access to firearms and need to be at least equally equipped for their own safety and to maintain order.

Many officers work honorably and tirelessly to quell violent crime. Are their well-intentioned efforts negatively impacted by media coverage of authorities accused of using excessive force? FBI Director James Comey recently told The New York Times that the increased scrutiny and criticism stemming from these cases has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals, possibly leading to increased crime in some cities.

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COMMUNICATION NOW: NMU Professor Gummi Oddsson is a published author on the subject of militarization of American law enforcement

Dr. Guðmundur “Gummi” Oddsson, a professor of sociology at NMU, told The Washington Post that any major efforts to “roll back the militarization of American law enforcement” must be accompanied by policies that address the roots of the problem: lax gun laws, excessive economic inequality, institutionalized racism and heavy-handed policing in disadvantaged communities.

Oddsson offers a unique dual perspective that made him a logical source for several international media outlets seeking to put U.S. shootings in a global context. He studies crimes across cultures and the impact of social inequality on violence. He coauthored a recent and relevant journal article titled “Policing Class and Race in Urban America.” Oddsson also is a native of Iceland, one of the five countries highlighted in the media coverage.

“In places like Iceland and Norway, most people trust law enforcement to police by consent, so to speak, rather than with the use or threat of oppressive, state-sanctioned violence,” Oddsson said. “In America, there is less trust in the police, especially among the poor and racial and ethnic minorities. A lot of that distrust boils down to the fact that heavy-handed policing and police shootings take place disproportionately in poor African-American communities in hyper-segregated cities like Detroit, Chicago and New York.”

Since his home country established its police force in 1778, Oddsson says there has been only one case of an Icelandic police officer shooting a person. The incident happened in 2013. This comes despite Iceland’s rank of 15th worldwide in the number of guns per capita. One third of its citizens own rifles and shotguns for hunting purposes. Oddsson calls it “the poster country for low crime.” He attributes that to cultural and economic factors, along with corrections-related policies.

“Iceland is small, tightly knit, homogenous and relatively egalitarian,” Oddsson said. “The poverty rate is low and the welfare system is fairly strong. Poverty can funnel people into criminal activity, which can result in violent interactions with police. Also, the correctional system is used differently in Iceland. It is focused more on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Prison sentences are usually short and there is more effort put into reintegrating offenders into the community, for example via educational opportunities. 

“The U.S., on the other hand, is the prison capital of the world with 4.5 percent of the global population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Its incarceration rate is higher than North Korea, China, Russia, Rwanda or South Africa. Rehabilitation has long taken a backseat to incapacitation and punishment in America, which, ironically, fuels a vicious cycle of recidivism and keeps incarceration rates up.”

The Washington Post article that quoted Oddsson offered insight on the remaining four countries where police carry firearms only in special circumstances—a strategy that seems to work surprisingly well: 

  • A 2004 survey of British police officers revealed that 82 percent would not want to be regularly armed, even though one-third reported fearing for their lives while on duty. One official said the United States and other countries have demonstrated that the practice of carrying firearms does not prevent gun violence or protect police from being shot.
  • Only 20-25 percent of Irish police officers are qualified to use firearms, according to the United Nations-sponsored research site, GunPolicy.org. 
  • In New Zealand, a college criminology lecturer published an essay summarizing his calculations that it is in fact safer for police officers not to carry weapons. He wrote that changing the practice would lead to an arms race with criminals and a spike in casualties. In New Zealand, “it is more dangerous being a farmer than it is a police officer.”
  • Despite a 2011 gunman’s attack on a Norwegian summer camp that killed 77 people, Norway has maintained its tradition of rarely arming police. By law, Norwegian police officers must have authorization from their chiefs to gain access to a firearm. 

Oddsson said Australians struck a middle ground after a 1996 mass shooting in Port Arthur that left 35 people dead. They enacted bi-partisan gun control measures that involved a massive buy back of semiautomatic weapons and stricter laws for those buying guns. Homicides with firearms dropped significantly. The same happened to suicides with guns, with no corresponding increase in non-firearm suicides. Australia has not had anything close to the Port Arthur incident since.

In America, there is a strong 2nd Amendment-driven belief—backed by a powerful NRA lobby—that there should be no effort to curb gun ownership by the public or gun carrying among police. Yet Oddsson says the data shows most Americans want stricter gun laws.

“I hope American legislators eventually make gun laws more sensible, allowing responsible gun ownership within reason, and start viewing police as public servants rather than a paramilitary.

“I see police shootings as a manifestation of the breakdown of trust between the police and residents of disadvantaged communities. One way to curb that is to make the police more visible and approachable in high-crime areas and get back to old-style policing: patrolling the streets on foot in pairs; interacting with people in the communities; getting to know them; participating in community events. Few things will build trust more effectively than stressing face-to-face interaction over force and treating one another with respect.”  

 

BEING THE CHANGE

In an effort to help students develop rapid problem-solving skills under stressful situations they may confront in their future law enforcement careers, Northern Michigan University’s Criminal Justice Department has acquired a use-of-force simulator.


Shooting Simulator


“This is the first time a simulator has been used in a university program,” said Dr. Charlie Mesloh, interim dean of the College of Health Sciences and Professional Studies and former Criminal Justice department head. “They’re usually restricted to police academies or professional training sessions, but even then, on a limited basis.” Mesloh, who has tested simulators for the U.S. Department of Justice and holds master instructor certificates in two systems, added, “Our students do three simulations per week. It makes sense to incorporate technology because students are so accustomed to using it. It also makes sense to explore better options because criminal justice education has been stagnant for too long.”

The simulator allows a student standing in front of a projection screen to be virtually transported into one of 700 video scenarios. She or he might respond to reports of an active shooter in a school, try to diffuse a domestic violence situation, conduct a border crossing inspection or make a seemingly routine traffic stop. The student must quickly assess the evolving situation, which can be controlled by a computer operator, and determine an appropriate response based on visual and audio cues. Is the suspect armed? Would a non-lethal option such as a taser be sufficient? Is it necessary to fire the electronic pistol at the suspect in self-defense? If a lethal response is required, did the student consider that a missed shot might ricochet off the suspect’s vehicle toward the family picnic nearby?

“There’s a lot to take in and things can change in a hurry,” said Mesloh. “A simulator adds a level of realism that traditional classroom lectures can’t provide. Students also write a report on each simulator incident they complete, as if they were preparing a deposition.

“The bottom line with Ferguson and related events, regardless of your opinion on how they played out, is that citizens want and deserve good cops they can trust who are properly trained in crisis intervention. Employers across the country tell us they want that, too, along with people who can solve problems quickly, communicate well and write detailed reports. Our goal is to expose students to these types of situations and help them develop related skills in college so they are more prepared when they enter a police academy.”

Mesloh said some of the simulator scenarios are applicable to social work, psychology and other academic disciplines. The device might also be used for research.