Police in America: Wild in the streets?

A leader in the new edition of The Economist, discussing race in America, reports, “Around 500 people were killed last year by the police—though since nobody counts, nobody really knows.” More information would help. But surely this isn’t what we want. What we want, first, is for unarmed civilians, belligerent or not, to emerge alive from an encounter with police. Second, the ideal ought to be for anyone suspected of a criminal offense, even those with guns blazing, to be neutralized, arrested, and (if need be) tried in court, not subjected to the justice of the street. That this ideal is hard to achieve doesn’t mean we have to accept “collateral damage,” as if our cities were another battlefield. Better training and nonlethal weapons for police could help; so could fewer weapons of any kind in the hands of criminals, as the Economist leader suggests.

Lately, every time I’ve seen a report on police violence, I’ve seen comments suggesting that this is the necessary alternative to police deaths. Let’s get something straight: the police should not be routinely acting on an us-or-them, kill-or-be-killed principle. The expectation that our constabulary forces should “protect and serve” does not mean that the police should first of all protect and serve themselves. Properly conceived, the alternative to civilian deaths is civilian lives.

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