IT is not easy being a cop in America. Law officers have been shot dead after pulling a motorist over for a minor traffic violation. There are crazies out there, such as gang members, who regard shooting a cop as a major status win. In the nine years to 2015, 50 police officers a year were killed, mostly by gunfire. Hundreds of others were wounded, some so seriously they had to hand in their badge.
But there is another side to this coin. In 2015, 990 people were killed by cops. Many more people were seriously wounded. And what makes this death toll so disturbing is that the majority of the victims were black and most were shot by white police officers.
A white female officer was this week cleared by an Oklahoma jury of shooting dead a black man when she thought he was reaching for a gun after she had stopped him for a traffic violation. The reaction from the black community has predictably been one of further outrage. The policewoman, Betty Shelby had been charged with manslaughter meaning that her shooting of the victim Terence Crutcher had not been premeditated, otherwise she would have faced a murder rap.
The powerful US gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, defends the constitutional right of US citizens to bear arms and insists that it is not the gun that kills people, it is the person holding the gun. But then consider the situation of police officers who risk death every time they confront a suspect. That alarming prospect was doubtless preying of Officer Shelby’s mind when she pulled over Crutcher’s automobile. The suspect could have been the sort of person who would try to shoot his way out of trouble. She simply did not know. But it was inevitable that she would suspect that there was a possibility that he might. In the tension of the moment, she acted instinctively. The result was that a man innocent of anything except perhaps a minor traffic violation ended up dead.
Of course there are cops, just like there are soldiers, who are trigger-happy and glorify their readiness to use lethal force when they consider it necessary. In soldiers, that trait is encouraged in general. But among US police commanders, such violence is not. It has been argued that there is insufficient psychological profiling of would-be cops. That may be true. But it is equally true that American law officers who have killed someone often need counseling and some do not come out of the treatment still wearing the uniform, they are so traumatized by what they did, even where a shooting was clearly justified.
The common feature of these tragedies for all of the victims, whether law officers or citizens, is gun ownership. There are more guns than there are US citizens. Control over the purchase of these weapons, including deadly assault rifles that have no place anywhere other than on the battlefield, is rudimentary. And even if someone is denied a gun purchase, second-hand weapons are readily available. The NRA and their supporters have turned logic on its head. Even if it is the person responsible for using a gun who is the killer, that person could not kill if he did not have a gun in the first place.