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American Cops Are Under Pressure To Rely Less On Guns And Take More Personal Risk

Critics say American officers should be trained in defensive tactics, especially empty-hand techniques, so that they depend  less on tasers and guns.
Images by Steve Skinner Photogra
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Critics say American officers should be trained in defensive tactics, especially empty-hand techniques, so that they depend less on tasers and guns.

A couple of summers ago in Poulsbo, Wash., in a crowded park before a fireworks show, a man named Stonechild Chiefstick was bothering people, according to police. They got complaints about him seeming intoxicated and "doing crazy stuff."

At first, the cops just talked to him about it. But when they got a report that he'd threatened someone with a screwdriver, they went to arrest him. The encounter ended with police shooting and killing him.

"I don't understand it. I don't understand why they just shoot," says Trishandra Pickup, his former fiancée and mother of his children.

The interaction was caught on a body camera, but it was knocked to the ground before the crucial moment. Some witnesses say Chiefstick lunged at the officers with the screwdriver before he was shot. The police department ruled the shooting justified.

But Pickup says police exaggerated the threat from Chiefstick.

"You can't just shoot and kill everyone when you feel they might do something," she says. "And it to me seems like they should be a little more brave."

Pickup is part of a coalition of people who've lost loved ones to police shootings, and who successfully pushed through a package of new state laws restricting police use of force and changing the way it's investigated.

Police reform activists often point to the example of other developed countries, where police rarely shoot people. They ask why the U.S. can't be more like the United Kingdom, where most officers are still unarmed and the number of people they kill every year is in single digits.

Policing experts say that's apples-and-oranges.

"You really can't compare the two countries," says Bill Bratton, who was twice commissioner of the New York Police Department, as well as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. He's written a new memoir about policing, The Profession.

"In America, you have the issue of gun violence," he says. "It drives me crazy when we have these comparisons with other western civilized countries — France, Germany — nobody has the level of gun violence we have and the threat that guns create for our officers."

That's certainly true. Forty-eight American officers were shot and killed last year, a danger their British counterparts rarely face.

Yet, even when you take guns out of the equation — when someone is clearly holding something else, such as a screwdriver or a knife — American police still shoot and kill far more often than their European counterparts.

Where it's assumed in the U.S. that rushing at a police officer with a knife will get you shot, in the U.K. you're very likely to survive.

"There is a greater investment in training, in terms of dealing with people who have behavioral problems," says Jerry Ratcliffe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University who spent years as a police officer in the U.K. "You can find videos online of British police showing a level of restraint, and waiting until [more] officers turn up with shields."

He recalls having to do repeated refresher training on how to use shields or nightsticks to subdue someone enough to wrest a blade from his hand, a kind of training he says is rare in the U.S.

"Here, in too many instances, we see just a person walking around the street with a knife, and at some point they get within a certain distance of an officer, and lethal force is deployed," he says.

Because firearms are the biggest threat to officers in the U.S., he says, that taints all interactions, even when the person in question isn't holding a gun.

"Before the officers leave the academy they're already sensitized to the perceived heightened level of risk that police officers face in society," Ratcliffe says. "And I think that's the big difference between training in the United States and training in other countries that I've worked with."

Some people inside American policing see that tendency, too. Brandon del Pozo, who spent 19 years as an NYPD officer, says police academies have convinced officers that "the closer you are to a person, as a suspect, the more dangerous it is."

He points to the legacy of lessons such as the "21-foot-rule," the controversial notion that it's unsafe to let someone with a blade get closer than that.

"Things like that have encouraged cops to keep their distance and use weapons more often," del Pozo says.

Two years ago, when he was police chief in Burlington, Vt., del Pozo published an op-ed in The New York Times calling on American police to take a lesson from unarmed colleagues in the U.K. and try to rely less on their guns — even when facing someone with a knife.

"Part of valor is taking risks for the right reasons. And the sanctity of human life is a good reason to take a risk," del Pozo says.

But that's not an easy sell. Chad Lyman is a Las Vegas police officer and defensive tactics trainer. He doesn't recommend American police start trying to grab knives out of people's hands — in part because of the risk to bystanders.

"If, in the battle for the knife, my right hand gets injured to the point it doesn't function, I'm never going to lethal force," Lyman says. "If I lose to this guy, he'll just start stabbing everybody else who's got their cell phone out, watching him stab me."

At the same time, Lyman agrees that American police can learn from the British. He says American officers aren't trained enough in defensive tactics, especially in empty-hand techniques, so they end up depending too much on tasers — which often don't work — and guns.

"We're moving away from those days when we would just weigh in and start grabbing guys. And controlling them and using force, in a grappling context," Lyman says. "I do think more grappling is the answer."

But if American police were to start "grappling" more, there would be a price to pay. Comparing 2019 statistics for the U.S. and the U.K., NPR found that British officers reported being assaulted and injured at nearly four times the rate as their American counterparts.

There's another factor to consider: the gun on the American officer's belt. Unlike the British, American officers know that if they get close enough to wrestle with someone, they're close enough to have the gun stolen and used against them.

Jerry Ratcliffe, the criminal justice professor, says Americans should be honest about all this, when they ask officers to wait longer before pulling the trigger.

"Are we prepared to accept the likelihood that police homicides are going to increase?" Ratcliffe asks. "And are we being reasonable in asking police officers to accept that increased risk?"

Elaine Simons thinks so.

"It's very hard, but it's also a responsibility that I think comes with having a badge," says Simons.

She lost her foster son to a police shooting in Auburn, Wash., and she's part of the coalition that pushed through the stricter use-of-force law in Washington state.

"You have a dual responsibility to protect and make sure that people are safe," she says. "And yet, impacted families are not feeling that we're having that same due process for our loved ones."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.