“What would happen,” asks The Week columnist Matthew Walther in a Sept. 13 piece, “if American police officers carried whistles instead of guns?” He muses further: “Would the country descend instantly into a chaos of looting, arson, and mass murder? Or would we just go on with our lives, commuting to jobs, raising children, watching sports, whatever — the same routine, albeit with a little bit less of the low-key anxiety that comes with seeing cops with weapons?”
I invite you to read Mr. Walther’s entire piece, but be warned you might take it as a parody. Consider the following:
The best argument against what I am suggesting is, of course, that a heavily armed police force is necessary because ours is a heavily armed citizenry. But police do not routinely carry weapons in Iceland, which has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in Europe. It is easy for sociologists to argue that this arrangement is successful because Iceland is a “small, homogeneous, egalitarian, and tightly knit society.” Could it be that it is somewhat easier to be homogeneous, egalitarian, and tightly knit when the most common representatives of the state’s authority are not wagging lethal weapons in your face? The mind reels.
Iceland. Is your mind reeling? Mine is.
Mr. Walther was moved to opine on police and guns by the recent shooting death of Botham Shem Jean in Dallas. Dallas police officer Amber Guyger has been arrested for killing Jean, whom she mistakenly believed to be an intruder after entering what she reportedly believed to be her own apartment, which was directly below Jean’s. The Jean shooting is such a black-swan event, so bizarre were the circumstances, that forming any policy prescriptions at all based on the incident seems unwise, to say the least. To conclude that because of this shooting police officers should not be armed is beyond foolish.
Mr. Walther assures us he is “no soft-on-crime weenie,” and that he “love[s] Dirty Harry and Magnum P.I. and Miami Vice.” And he concedes that there are circumstances in which cops should carry guns. “But,” he writes, “it strains credulity to think that virtually all of them need to do so most of the time. Patrolling a neighborhood or making a routine traffic stop is not the same thing as raiding the compound of a drug smuggler who has been accused of murder.”
This may come as a surprise to Mr. Walther, but police officers do not have the luxury of deciding the circumstances in which they operate. It seems odd that this requires an explanation, but no cop can say to a colleague, “You take the gun today, partner, I’ll just deal with the nice people and handle the easy stuff.”
Two recent incidents illustrate the folly of Mr. Walther’s suggestion. On September 11, police officers in Omaha stopped a car occupied by two men, one of whom was John Ezell, Jr., an ex-con who was armed with a gun. Ezell came out shooting, striking one officer in the shoulder. Other officers returned fire and wounded Ezell before taking him into custody.
And in Los Angeles, the LAPD released video of a July 28 officer-involved shooting that began as, yes, a traffic stop. Officers patrolling in the San Fernando Valley stopped Richard Mendoza, whom they recognized from prior contacts and knew to be on probation. In the video, you can see Mendoza do his best to convince the officers he is not a threat, holding his hands up and complying with their instructions right up to the moment he pulled a gun and shot one of them in the leg. Having shot one officer, Mendoza then aimed over the car’s roof and tried to shoot her partner, who returned fire and fatally wounded him.
The LAPD shooting illustrates how quickly things can go from an ostensibly non-threatening contact to a deadly threat. No more than three seconds elapsed from the moment Mendoza began to step from the car to when he was wounded and fell to the ground. Does Mr. Walther believe that if these cops had not been armed, Mendoza would have surrendered peacefully?
I have little doubt that in the neighborhood where Matthew Walther lives, if the local police were to disarm life would indeed go on pretty much as usual. And I have little doubt the same would be true where I live, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, which is among the charms of living there. But I am equally sure that other places, some not all that far from my home and perhaps some not far from Mr. Walther’s, wherever that might be, would soon descend into the type of dystopian chaos he describes, for it is in such areas that only the fear of punishment constrains some people from succumbing to their predatory desires.
Take Chicago, for example, where, the Chicago Tribune informs us, 2,113 people have been shot this year. (The number is current at the time of this writing; it’s bound to be higher by the time this piece is posted.) Does Mr. Walther believe that if the police in Chicago didn’t carry guns, that number would be lower? After all, the neighborhoods of Chicago where violence is highest are, like Iceland, “small, homogeneous, egalitarian, and tightly knit.”
So it’s simple. Disarm the cops in Chicago and all will be well. Why did no one think of this before?