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

May 19, 2021
Originally published on May 19, 2021 6:12 pm

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.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

American police shoot and kill about a thousand people a year. Most are armed, but not all. Some of the people killed are having mental health crises or are trying to goad the police into shooting them.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And as more and more of these encounters end up on video, some people are demanding that police wait longer before shooting, even if it means taking more personal risk. A warning this piece contains some disturbing audio. NPR's Martin Kaste has the story.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: A couple of summers ago in Poulsbo, Wash., in a crowded park before a fireworks show, a man named Stonechild Chiefstick was bothering people. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Get your hand out of your pocket.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Hey. Chill out. Chill out.

KASTE: The encounter was captured on body camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Screwdriver.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Hey. Get on the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

KASTE: The camera was knocked to the ground before the crucial moment, but witnesses say Chiefstick turned toward the police with the screwdriver in his hand. Some say he lunged. That's when one officer shot and killed him. The police department determined the shooting to be justified, a conclusion rejected by Trishandra Pickup, Chiefstick's ex-fiancee and the mother of his children.

TRISHANDRA PICKUP: I don't understand it. I don't understand why they just shoot.

KASTE: Pickup as part of a coalition of people who've had loved ones killed by law enforcement. They just pushed through a new state law that makes deadly force a last resort for police. It's not clear the law would have prevented Chiefstick's death, but she hopes it'll change the way that cops handle these moments.

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

KASTE: Activists often point to other developed countries where police rarely shoot people in these situations - the United Kingdom especially, where most officers are still unarmed, and the number of people they kill every year is in the single digits. But Bill Bratton says comparisons like this drive him crazy.

BILL BRATTON: You really can't compare the two countries.

KASTE: Bratton was New York police commissioner twice, as well as police chief in Los Angeles. And he's written a new memoir called "The Profession." He says, for cops in the U.S., it's simply a different world.

BRATTON: The issue is guns, a country that has more guns than people, which increases significantly the apprehension level of an officer in every encounter because he never knows if he's going to be dealing with somebody with a gun.

KASTE: And that's certainly true. Nearly 50 American officers were shot and killed last year, a danger their British counterparts rarely face. But what if we took guns out of it and just compared how the countries handled situations where the threat is a screwdriver or a crowbar or a knife, situations where the British cops stopped the armed person without firing a shot?

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

KASTE: Such as the man in this video from the U.K. He's out in the street running at officers while waving a machete. They surround him, keep him at bay from a distance until more cops arrive with plastic shields. And then they all just pile on top of him. Jerry Ratcliffe says they can do this because they train for it. He was a British cop, and he remembers practicing this very tactic.

JERRY RATCLIFFE: And the far end of the room was one of - was a 6'5" physical training instructor wielding a baseball bat. And the idea is to basically push them up against the wall such that they're basically unable to harm you because of these large shields between you and them. And then other officers can take the weapon out of their hands. And then we can easily restrain them.

KASTE: Radcliffe is now a criminal justice professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, and he says he's rarely seen these tactics taught in the U.S., in part because the priority here is to train cops to face guns. He says this is just one of the ways that the prevalence of guns taints - that's his word - American policing, even in situations where a suspect doesn't have one.

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

KASTE: That focus on risk has made American cops less willing or less able to get in close and grapple with people, says former NYPD officer Brandon del Pozo.

BRANDON DEL POZO: Police academies that say, listen, the closer you are to a person as a suspect, the more dangerous it is, especially things like the 21-foot rule, which says if you're within 21 feet of someone and they have a knife, that rubric says you're at their mercy. Things like that have encouraged cops to keep their distance and use weapons more often.

KASTE: He recalls being told as a young police officer that his No. 1 priority on the job was to go home safe every night.

DEL POZO: And I think that, you know, for the most part, that comes from a good place. And it's true. But there came a point where I thought, as a cop, part of valor is taking risks for the right reasons. And the sanctity of human life is a good reason to take a risk.

KASTE: In 2019, when he was a police chief in Burlington, Vt., del Pozo wrote an op-ed in The New York Times saying it was time for American police to learn from their British colleagues, especially when confronted with weapons other than guns. But this is not an easy sell. Chad Lyman is a Las Vegas police officer and defensive tactics trainer. He doesn't recommend that American police officers start trying to grab knives out of people's hands, in part because of the risk to bystanders.

CHAD LYMAN: 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. Lethal force is gone. So now if I lose to this guy, he just starts stabbing everybody else who's got their cellphone out watching him stab me.

KASTE: At the same time, Lyman does agree that American police have something to learn from the British. He says cops are not trained nearly well enough in how to fight, especially an empty hand techniques. So they end up depending too much on Tasers, which often don't work - and then guns.

LYMAN: We're moving away from those days when we would just wade in and start grabbing guys and controlling them and using force in a grappling context. I do think more grappling is the answer.

KASTE: But if American police were to start grappling more, it would come with a cost. In Britain, police are rarely killed, but they are injured in assaults more often than American cops. Also, when American police wrestle someone, they have to worry about the guns on their belts and whether they'll be stolen and used against them. Jerry Ratcliffe says we need to be honest about all of this.

RATCLIFFE: Are we prepared to accept the likelihood that police homicides are going to increase? And are we being reasonable in asking police officers to accept the increased risk?

ELAINE SIMONS: It's very hard, but it's also a responsibility that I think comes with having a badge.

KASTE: Elaine Simons lost her foster son to a police shooting. She's part of that group of family members who pushed through the stricter use-of-force law in Washington state.

SIMONS: You have a dual responsibility to protect and make sure that people are safe, and yet impacted families are not feeling that we are having that same due process for our loved ones.

KASTE: Still, it's not easy to ask police to take greater risks, especially at a time when departments are having trouble recruiting and retaining officers. But now that so many police shootings are on video and are being judged by the public, there are more people like Simons who want the police to readjust the balance, the balance between their safety and that of the people they're told to confront. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.