Non-Lethal Policing

This week’s news is rife with headlines about killings involving our state and local police. Since we’re so inured to polarization, it’s tempting to take sides. Spirited Reasoners don’t fall for that bait.

Too often, the issue is framed in terms of black and white (or blue). You’re either for the police or against them. You want to fly a thin blue line flag or you want to carry a “defund the police” banner.  In the eyes of Spirited Reasoners, both approaches tend to add more heat than light.

A brief internet search uncovered the following two points, both worthy of note:

  1. We’ve been here before. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover appointed the Wickersham Commission to study the causes of failures of law enforcement relating to prohibition. The commission’s report criticized prevailing police methods, including the unnecessary and ineffective infliction of pain to obtain confessions, the widespread corruption, and the intrusion of local politics. See, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wickersham_Commission

So, instead of defunding the police, why not try a combination of (a) increased funding, coupled with (b) high levels of training and accountability? In other words, provide federal funding for local police departments while also requiring them to employ officers who meet certain high standards and who are then required to pass a rigorous program of law enforcement training, with frequent refresher courses. This training would include, at a minimum, training in Constitutional rights and the fundamentals of professional courtesy in dealing with members of the public.

Thus, step one would aim at the elimination of those cops unable or unwilling to master the difficult challenges we place on our police.

What would be step two?

One problem police appear to be facing is the one that occurs when they are forced to confront a person brandishing what appears to be a deadly weapon. What would you or I do if we were to find ourselves in the officer’s shoes in a case like that? An all-too-familiar example in the Portland, Oregon region is the aggressive individual who happens to be high on one drug or another while also brandishing a deadly weapon. Someone then calls 9-1-1. When the responder arrives, the aggressive individual rushes at someone—perhaps at the officer, perhaps at an innocent bystander—at which point the officer responds by killing the attacker.

I typed the following phrase into a search engine: “Why don’t police use tranquilizer darts?” After all, at least in some of the nature shows I’ve watched on TV, such darts are routinely used by veterinarians working to save endangered species in the wild.

I was surprised by the number of hits I received to that question. The first was a diatribe along the lines of “we tried tranquilizer darts already and they didn’t work.” According to the author of that piece, police were vilified by the Baltimore media in one case when a tranquilizer dart was used to stop a 13-year-old who was threatening bystanders with a 45-caliber handgun and then fired every available round at the responding police. Apparently, the tranquilizer dose was fatal. Police were forced to endure headlines the following day along the lines of “Police Use Drug Overdose to Kill Teenager.”

The Spirited Reasoner response to that kind of knee-jerk thinking is to say “Okay. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Let’s try a different tranquilizer. Or a different dosage. For example, suppose we could develop a tranquilizer dart that would work within seconds for individuals weighing between 80 and 120 pounds. If the target happened to be a bigger person, then two shots, or even three, might be required.

Might some folks be allergic? Yes. But isn’t an acceptance of that rare number of cases much better than the 100% of people who face death when shot by lead bullets?

Aren’t tasers and stun guns designed for the same purpose? Yes, but those weapons require that the officer move in close to the target.

I found an intriguing article on the potential use of ketamine as a potential tranquilizer solution. But I am not, alas, a qualified pharmacist, so I can’t claim that ketamine would be the non-lethal answer. I only know this is a problem we need to be addressing as a nation. The way we worked successfully to find a vaccine to address COVID-19.

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