Why Doesn’t Ferguson Happen Abroad?

Lethal Shootings

Yglesias connects police shootings to gun prevalence:

Ferguson is in many ways all about race and racism. But this chart reveals an important sense in which it’s not about that at all. If you know anything about the UK or Germany, you’ll know that these are not even remotely societies who’ve eliminated the problem of racism. If anything, having struggled with it for less time than the United States, they’re even worse than we are. Where they outperform us is in drastically reducing the civilian death toll without ending racism or entrenched poverty or any of the St. Louis area’s other problems.

A well-armed population leads to police shootings of the unarmed in two ways. One is that police officers have to be constantly vigilant about the possibility that they are facing a gun-wielding suspect. Cleveland police officers shot and killed a 12 year-old boy recently, because they not-entirely-unreasonably thought his toy gun was a real gun.

The other, more relevant to the Michael Brown case, is that when civilians are well-armed, police have to be as well. That turns every encounter into a potentially lethal situation.

Ed Krayewski thinks this theory too simplistic:

Matt Yglesias says the cops’ assumption Rice’s toy gun was real “wasn’t unreasonable.” For someone that spends a lot of time arguing from authority, he doesn’t hold the “experts” to a high standard. You can’t be deferential to cops’ judgment AND not expect them to make better judgments and then blame anything other than your attitude on the police violence that predictably follows. Boys, and girls, have been playing with toy guns for decades and somehow cops used to be able to handle it without arresting or shooting children.

Waldman joins the conversation:

The most common explanation is that since we have so many guns in America, police are under greater threat than other police. Which is true, but American police also kill unarmed people all the time — people who have a knife or a stick, or who are just acting erratically. There are mentally disturbed people in other countries, too, so why is it that police in Germany or France or Britain or Japan manage to deal with these threats without killing the suspect?

This is where we get to the particular American police ideology, which says that any threat to an officer’s safety, even an unlikely one, can and often should be met with deadly force.

Adam Ozimek suggests some reforms:

First, remove collective bargaining for police officers entirely. They should be employed at will, and should be able to be fired without any arbitration whatsoever. Workplace protections can be good for workers, but retaining the public’s trust in the police is far more important than making police officer be a nice job for someone.

Second, if a police officer shoots someone who is unarmed they should be fired even if they can prove they reasonably felt threatened. Self-defense can be a good reason to not bring criminal charges against a police officer for shooting someone, but it’s not necessarily a good reason to let them keep their jobs. The near constant stream of cases of police being too quick to shoot suggest their incentives right now lean too strongly towards shooting first and thinking later.

Update from a reader:

The graphic you posted puts US police killings at 409. It turns out no one knows what the number is for sure, but it is likely much higher, at least 1000 per year.