In a nation where approximately one third of the population owns guns, it might sound strange to argue that police officers should not “police” the community while being armed. After all, the Second Amendmentdoes protect the rights of citizens to keep or “own” and bear or “carry” firearms. The Supreme Court, which is charged with interpreting the Constitution, has consistently ruled that the Second Amendment applies toindividual self-defense, and was never intended as a provision related to hunting or the military.
But here’s the catch… there was no such thing as police officers when the Constitution was written. Seriously.
That might surprise some who assume that human beings would have torn each other – and society – apart at the seams without constant police patrols. But the reality is that the first concept for community policing originated in the United Kingdom in 1812, crafted by Sir Robert Peel.
Peel’s concepts were not implemented throughout the U.K. all at once. It wasn’t until the late 1820s that London implemented community policing. It was still some time before the concept would make its way to the United States.
Today, nearly all of the “safeguards” that Peel insisted must be kept in place for police abuse not to arise have fallen by the wayside. Police no longer come from the communities they serve in most cases. Cops are often out of uniform and in unmarked vehicles while performing their duties. Peel said this was a recipe fordisaster.
But discussing the specifics of Peel’s ideas and model for community police takes us away from the underlying point that when the Constitution granted the right to own and carry arms for self-defense to thepeople, the Founding Fathers had no concept of armed men “policing” the community in an “offensive” (some might say “proactive”) manner and arresting for misdemeanors as agents of the State.
In many countries around the globe, police officers do not carry guns while policing. The nature of the job is very different than simply going about your business as a citizen – armed, and defending yourself if need be. The role of the community police officer is to… police.
Policing is not defensive in nature, it is offensive. The Constitution never had a word to say about someone – let alone an agent of the State – having the right to be armed in the course of policing citizens “proactively” or offensively. The idea simply had no precedent for the Founding Fathers to conceive of such a model. All indications are that if they knew of such a concept, they would have opposed it for application on American streets.
Today, in Britain, Ireland, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand, officers are still unarmed while on patrol. That doesn’t mean they are disarmed entirely, but while on patrol, in the performance of offensive duties of policing, they do not have weapons on them.
“The practice is rooted in tradition and the belief that arming the police with guns engenders more gun violence than it prevents,” Guðmundur Oddsson, an assistant professor of sociology at Northern MichiganUniversity, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
In Iceland, one third of citizens are armed. But the police are unarmed. To Icelanders, it makes perfect sense for citizens to be armed for self-defense. Defense is defense. But police officers are out on the streets patrolling, engaging people, and some might even suggest “looking for trouble.” In Iceland it does not make a bit of sense to citizens that people engaged in such duties should be armed.
In 2013, Iceland saw the first police shooting of a citizen in their history. This is in spite of the fact that the nation is the 15th most armed nation in the world per capita. You might not have thought of Iceland as being a very high crime region… and you’d be right. In spite of having an unarmed police force patrolling the streets, and having a highly armed populace, crime is extremely low in Iceland.
“Iceland’s low crime rates are rooted in the country’s small, homogenous, egalitarian and tightly knit society,” sociologist Oddsson explained.
Richard Wright, a criminology professor at Georgia State University, recalled “once, during a presentation, an Icelandic police officer kept referring to ‘poor people with problems’ — and it took me a while before I realized that she was talking about offenders. She considered every citizen precious because ‘we are so few and there is so much to do,’ she said.”
In New Zealand, there are also large numbers of armed citizens, yet the police are unarmed there too. One professor told the Washington Post that “it’s more dangerous to be a farmer than an unarmed police officer.”
“Only a dozen or so senior police officers nationwide are rostered to wear a handgun on any given shift,” Philip Alpers, Associate Professor at the Sydney School of Public Health explained.
Oddsson commented on the idea of disarming American police, suggesting that “any attempts to roll back the militarization of the American police would need to be accompanied by policies that increase economic and racial equality and legitimate opportunity for advancement for the poor.”
Maybe Oddsson is right in saying that simply disarming the police “cold turkey” wouldn’t be a good idea. But whatever your position on how quickly we disarm the police, this is clearly a discussion that we should be having in our communities. Instead of talking about how many bullets the people need in their magazines, perhaps we should be asking why agents of the State are patrolling our streets with guns in the first place?