I was watching a cop television show recently and a thought had occurred to me: are our police force members not trained to take a punch?
In my observation of television and film in which police play a role, there are, for sure, a fair amount of scenes involving coming to a door, finding the latch broken, and proceeding to draw a weapon to enter. Stand offs are common place. Guns are being reached for at every appropriate scenario (unless it’s a commentary on today’s hot button topics, in which case the wrong escalation of force will be used.) Yet another thing I observed were the amount of times a gun would NOT be handled. When cops would choose hand-to-hand (CQB) tactics over going for their weapon. Sometimes this is done to raise the stakes, most likely written because this is more dramatic, after all, than a shootout, and sometimes it’s just to show the coolness/badassary of a specific character. In every case, they don’t seem very threatened by anyone not holding a weapon, as they are usually accepting of the potential to beat up the bad guy. if there’s a knife? Even better. In situations where a cop is caught off guard, or in a tough spot, the gun never comes out except as a means of putting a button on the whole thing. A period at the end of a conversation. First they disarm, they incapacitate, and before the “bad guy” can retaliate, our hero draws the weapon. It’s over.
Cops on TV shows are never afraid of a good scrap. They don’t fear taking a punch to the jaw. In some cases they’re not even afraid of a cut or stabbing they might take in overtaking their target. They’ll even chase their prey through windows, doors, over rooftops, and through intersections without a single thought to their weapon. Entertainment likes to paint a brave portrait of our police force, if we’re looking at your procedural cop show in particular, but I wonder if that’s become more idealized than realistic in today’s context.
This past week I watched a black man get shot by the police.
It was a video.
Shared on social media.
Way too common of an occurrence.
At the start of the video, caught via the chest cam of the cop himself, there’s already a gun in his hands. It’s dark, but at one moment I can see that the young man, having been pulled over in his car, the door already open, clearly has his hands on the steering wheel (or just above it, in a common surrendering fashion) and there is no weapon in sight. I’m waiting for a moment. A flinch, a sudden movement, or some random/obscure object that cannot be identified. I’m even anticipating disobedience of orders, perhaps a hesitation, or anything that might justify having a weapon out in the first place. But none of that happens. A split second and there are three shots, and more from another cop I didn’t even see initially. I watch it again: What happened?
Same empty hands. Same cooperation. Same calm demeanor from the young black man.
As mentioned earlier, videos like this have become a common occurrence, and every time I finish one I’m always asking the same question: What is the police so afraid of?
I’ve been trained in escalation of force. I’m a U.S. Navy veteran with a tour in Iraq from 2008–09. I have an expert rifleman qualification with a medal to prove it. I’m a proud gun owner of an AR-15. All to say that I’ve become increasingly intolerant of our local law enforcement’s lack of observation of the basic gun safety rules with each and every subsequent video of an unarmed black man getting shot.
I used to think this was a lack of training. Perhaps our cops went to the academy and got their initial qualifications, got their orders, and subsequently failed to continue training themselves of the basics of when and where to draw their weapons. In the military we were held to a certain standard. The escalation of force procedures were clear that under no circumstances were we ever supposed to point (or draw, if that be the case) our weapon at a person unless there was a weapon present. The identification of various weapons was also a necessary component. There was never an occasion where I was trained to use my gun as means of holding someone at bay, potential attacker or otherwise, unless they were clearly holding a weapon. At least, this is how I remember it. In the military, I was constantly afraid of potentially shooting the wrong person, or making the wrong decision because I reacted too quickly. These rules were given to us to instill that fear. No one wants that on their conscience. Not the least of which, our tactic was “hearts and minds” first, which some may have disagreed with, however it most certainly did not involve our weapons.
Police, it seemed to me, have been trained to already have their weapons drawn and pointed during each encounter I witness on video. Clearly there’s a disconnect here. There is no warzone. There is no occupation. Yet law enforcement seems to not be held to the same standards as we were. They are not afraid of making the wrong decisions. Innocent civilians do not seem to be on their radar. Credible threats are not being established. Barrels are pointed. Safety is off. Trigger fingers are already squeezing.
Then I thought that overtraining might be the issue. Perhaps our law enforcement has put too much emphasis on range time and gun drills. Maybe that’s why they’re so quick to unholster their weapons, because it’s been drilled into them more than, let’s say, handing out high fives. That’s an exaggeration, but I believe there’s definitely a pendulum swinging in the wrong direction. We know that law enforcement are taught to profile (and I’m not talking racial here…we’ll get there.) Finding criminals is a sorting game, meant to differentiate between those civilians who are about to commit a crime and those who are “law-abiding citizens”. Profiling is supposed to keep people safe by spotting those who are in danger to themselves or others before any harm can be done. In the military we did this as well. How to recognize when someone is lying to you. Using clues to determine threats before they happen. We were taught to be on the lookout for our enemies before they could present themselves. It’s very effective when you’re at war, where anyone could be a threat.
For law enforcement, this kind of profiling has proven to be dangerous. In our communities, we’re being perceived as potential threats. It pre-supposes civilians as enemies. Combine that with over-reliance on gun handling, and I can see why weapons are being drawn in cases where they otherwise shouldn’t. Then there’s the process of gang profiling. Who is most likely to be in a gang? You already know the answers.
We’ve trained our law enforcement for war. To trust their guns before anything else. To perceive regular people as threats first. They believe every outing is a potential battle. That every encounter could be lethal; especially if they run into someone that could be gang-related. How would you react if this was what you were told, every morning, year after year?
I worked with an NYC cop while stationed in Iraq. He said he knew the names of all the gang members in his precinct. He even knew their birthdays. He would drive by in his uniform and cop car and yell at them from the window, “Hey, happy birthday! How’s your mom doin?” Just to mess with them. It was a tactic. Get under their skin. Wait for them to screw up. They’ll go to jail eventually. He was just biding his time.
I was in my early twenties when I heard this, and I thought it was funny. He was the good guy. They were the bad guys. Clearly. Now I’ve realized that this is a terrible perspective for cops to have towards civilians. Are they all just waiting for us to screw up? Is every human being a potential criminal, waiting to break? Am I a potential threat because I’m not wearing a uniform?
What are we training our cops to believe? How are we training them to react? Have we trained them too much in the areas that are causing a division between them and those they are to protect?
George Floyd was murdered by the cops this week. This time it wasn’t by a gun. I imagine there’s been too much bad press, so somewhere the cops realized that maybe drawing their gun is not the right move right out the gate. Apparently the cops were called for a potential counterfeiting. Sure. That doesn’t seem like a situation that requires a weapon. Good call cops. Instead, they thought it would be a good idea to detain him by putting a knee on his neck…for 7 minutes. The first video was disturbing enough. Then I saw another angle, and further realized that it wasn’t just one cop, but three cops who had their knees on George Floyd (two were on his back.) This was infuriating for a multitude of reasons.
One: It doesn’t take that long to detain someone.
Two: How did we escalate to this, really?
Three: He was already in handcuffs (as I found out later) so what was the purpose of this?
Four: Were the rest of them…I dunno…taking a break?
Five: Un. Armed.
Six: Clearly the wrong lessons have been taken from past experiences.
Most importantly, the question I seem to keep returning to, whether it’s this video or another: What are they so afraid of?
Let’s imagine this is in one of those TV shows. An unarmed “criminal” is being put under arrest. He’s already handcuffed. He resists. Better yet, he runs. What does our hero cop do? He takes the punch. He relishes the chase. Either way he gets his man quickly detained. All without a gun. The scene ends with a quip and a shot of the criminal getting into the back seat of a car. Just another day at the office.
Law enforcement of America, in contrast, are cowards. There is a fear present that I cannot justify. They are threatened despite being seemingly in control. This is why firearm safety rules are being ignored. This is why escalation of force is not being adhered to. This is why they feel like they are at war.
I don’t know if it’s a fear of getting punched in the face. I don’t know if it’s a fear of getting their uniforms dirty. I don’t know if it’s a fear of cardio. All I do know is that their fear is causing them to kill civilians. Because of profiling, it’s causing them to kill black civilians. Imporoper training is causing them to go for their guns first, and view civilians as potential criminals who haven’t been caught yet; which should scare all of us.
I believe there’s enough evidence to show that Law Enforcement cannot be trusted. Guns should be taken away (except swat). They should be trained in alternative methods of de-escalating situations, and they should be forced to use them. They should be trained in empathy, counseling, and humanitarian efforts. Not to view civilians as enemies, but as people who potentially need their help. Profiling should be a crime. Credible threat, not perceived threat, should be required in all cases, punishable by fines, loss of badge, or jail time, depending on the severity of the situation. Accountability should not come from their body cams, but from their fellow officers.
More importantly, they should learn to take a fucking punch, because if another black man dies because of some unjustifiable fear of an officer, then we’ll give you something to be afraid of.
Mattias is an actor, writer, filmmaker, and editor currently living in Los Angeles, CA. He often writes about his observations about life, the human condition, spirituality, and relationships. He also enjoys writing about movies, pop culture, formula one, and current events. Often these writings are 'initial thoughts' and un-edited, as authentic as possible, and should be considered opinions. If you're interested in commenting on his work, or continuing the conversation, you should consider following him on Twitter or share an article on social media, where he would love to engage even further. Consider subscribing via RSS for more.