Do Cops Rely on Their Guns Too Much?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In response to Adrienne’s piece on the number of Americans killed by police every year, a reader recalls a WTF moment with overanxious cops:

Police officers have an outsized imagining of their own risk. I can remember one time I got pulled over on my scooter (for not wearing eye protection). I told the cops I thought I had some sunglasses in my backpack and reached to get them out and they both went for their sidearms.

In the United States, taxi drivers, trash collectors, farmers, steel workers, and pilots all have more dangerous jobs than police, but we expect them to act responsibly and would never tolerate them killing citizens in the name of “protecting themselves” in their line of work. Maybe it’s time we start confronting the fact that police officers aren’t action stars confronting violent criminals on a daily basis, but simply public servants carrying out their jobs.

Has a cop ever pulled a gun on you, or at least reached for it? If you’d like to recount the experience, please send us a note. Update from another reader, Susan, who responds to the one above:

There are those who are definitely in law enforcement for that type of legalized killing (being an “action star”), but the vast majority of police officers are not on a power trip and really are a member of the community. You should request a ride-along one day, if possible, but in a city, not some small town. It will be eye-opening to see all of the risks they are allegedly imagining.

One other thing: We can blame government partially for all of this “us v. them” mentality. The obsession with stats and “reducing” crime year over year is mostly a function of politics.

Another reader:

Putting the racial element aside for a moment, the thing that strikes me about virtually all of the videos we’ve seen in the past couple years is the extent to which police are typically escalating rather than attempting to de-escalate the potential for violence in any given situation.

There doesn’t appear to be any emphasis on avoiding violence, or engaging in basic crisis management de-escalation tactics. If an officer is indifferent to the possibility of having a tense but nonviolent situation explode in violence because he knows he’s packing heat, that is a failure of training and disposition.

Their job is to “protect and serve” their communities, even those members of the community who may have engaged in crime. If the attitude going in is “I’m going to drop the hammer on this guy if he doesn’t instantly obey my order” instead of “I want to take this person in or accomplish my questioning while minimizing the risk of violence where at all possible,” then these things will continue to happen.

It seems like too many officers think of their gun as an affirmative problem solver rather than a necessary last resort. And, for what it’s worth, I have witnessed plenty of cops who were excellent at crisis management and de-escalation, and they appeared genuinely concerned about their own safety and the safety of the people with whom they were interacting.