Future Tense

What if Cops Needed Permission to Draw Their Guns?

A pistol in the holster of a uniformed police officer wearing leather gloves.
geogif/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A year has passed since the most notorious police murder of a Black man this century, and so little has changed. With each week, the public learns that yet another unarmed Black man has been killed by the police, more often by gun than by knee. Some will find my characterization too reductive; the circumstances of a police encounter matter, they will say. But it is the simple truth. About one Black man in 1,000 will be killed by a police officer, and nearly 1 in 5 of those men will be unarmed.

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Police chiefs who wish to serve and protect—or, short of that, to keep their jobs—must be open to significant operational changes. Here’s one: Make it harder for officers to access firearms.

In the field, a loaded handgun is rarely more than inches away from a police officer’s fingertips. This is true even when the officer is responding to a cat stuck in a tree, a car that has stalled in an intersection, or a teen with a spray can. Yet most of the tasks that officers perform pose little to no danger to them. While granular data can be hard to come by, three police departments, all covering urban areas, have granted public access to statistics breaking down officer activity.  These data reveal that officers spend only about 4 percent of their time responding to crimes of violence.

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On the whole, police work is less dangerous than many other common jobs, such as farming, garbage collection, or driving a delivery vehicle, where death is about two to three times more likely to occur, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2020, garbage collectors experienced 34 deaths per 100,000 workers, delivery drivers 27, farmers 26 deaths, and police officers 14. Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t be surprised that more unarmed people, regardless of race, are shot and killed by police officers than police officers are, themselves, shot and killed.

We must face up to the possibility that the near-constant presence of firearms is doing more harm than good. Not only to the countless people who have lost loved ones to a police bullet, but also to those who love the officer who shot it. Police who are involved in shootings frequently experience trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, and the emotional consequences can be far worse when the shooting is accidental or based upon a mistake.

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There are undoubtedly moments that police officers rightfully need firearms, and the hard question is how to limit access to those moments. Technology provides a means: Guns could be kept in smart lockboxes.

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Using this mainstream and relatively inexpensive device, police dispatchers or qualified police personnel could remotely grant in-the-field officers immediate access to the contents of a lockbox. Under a new policy, remote access could be granted only when officers are responding to suspected crimes of violence or other similar dangers. For ordinary encounters, like routine traffic stops, the box would remain locked. As a fail-safe, officers could immediately override locks to respond to unforeseen and dangerous emergencies, but doing so would trigger mandatory review by an independent body. Under those circumstances, officers would face sanction if they failed to satisfy the body that the override was justified. Simply put, this policy could change the default setting of policing from lethally armed to unarmed.

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This is no small difference. For one, it will lower the stakes of police mistake. Pepper spray and electric shock cause excruciating pain, but the recipient will almost certainly make a complete physical recovery. What’s more, removing a lethal weapon is likely to change the dynamic of police encounters, making them less stressful and prone to error. Empirical studies have found evidence that simply wielding a gun makes one more likely to conclude that another person is holding a gun. And the absence of a police weapon could lower the likelihood that people questioned or detained by police will behave uncooperatively out of fear or anger. Numerous studies have replicated a behavioral phenomenon known as “the weapons effect”: just seeing a weapon increases the likelihood that a person will have aggressive or hostile thoughts. Taking guns out of routine police encounters could also improve public perception. In Great Britain, where unarmed police still outnumber armed police, a recent experiment found that people were more likely to give negative ratings to images of armed police officers.

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Of course, this is the United States, where gun violence is much, much higher than in Great Britain. But we can look to other American professions to improve our understanding of how access to firearms relates to the dangerousness of a job. Security guards provide the best analogy. Like police officers, security guards engage in crime deterrence and prevention, but unlike police officers, they usually do not carry firearms. Yet, on average, security guard deaths are much rarer than police officer deaths. Obviously, the two jobs are not exactly the same; police officers respond to crimes in much larger areas and are usually the safety measure of last resort. But security guard statistics should give us confidence that merely introducing friction between police and their firearms will not lead to a significant rise in police fatalities.

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Even with the research and statistics, critics might still argue that this is another form of gun control, one that will place America’s finest at a disadvantage against armed criminals. But this proposal is less about control than it is about accountability.  In-the-field officers would still be able to access the same weaponry they always have, albeit indirectly in most instances. If they seek direct access, they must justify it, but only after the fact. Yes, gun governance would be shared, but the collaborator would be a fellow member of the force, one who is in a better position to make a dispassionate, composed decision. And because officers are still proximate to a firearm under this system, the policy is not likely to embolden those who wish them harm. While it is possible that an officer will be hurt or killed because her gun is still resting in its box, these tragedies will likely be outnumbered by the peaceful encounters that would otherwise have taken a dark turn had a gun been on the officer’s hip.

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There might be the objection that the policy relies too heavily upon people who are unable to witness circumstances of a police encounter firsthand. Putting aside the fact that lockbox overrides allow officers to respond quickly to emergent situations, this criticism doesn’t give enough credit to the role that remote personnel, like 911 dispatchers, already play in police work. Most policing is responsive, and those responses rely primarily on advance descriptions provided by dispatchers; it is exceptional when an officer proactively discovers ongoing crime during patrol. The objection also lacks foresight. If the demands on remote personnel are higher, specialized training and technological assistance can improve performance. As to the latter, major police departments have already begun to invest significantly in A.I.-powered predictive policing techniques. These Big Data approaches currently suffer from defects, chief among them is the reification of racial bias. At present, computer scientists have struggled in their efforts to debias predictive policing tools, and some believe they may never work fairly. But if they are someday successful, the technology might usefully augment assessments that a crime of violence is occurring. If so, they could lower the risk that people who are not present at the scene will overlook important correlations or give too much weight to evidence that does not yield reliable predictions of danger.

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Others might object that the idea of using technology to change essential aspects of policing is too fanciful for real life. But employing remote-controlled lockboxes for police firearms is not a novel concept. Patents for police devices resembling the one I describe are old news, having existed for more than a decade. Mainstream companies, like Estes AWS, already market wireless, automated gun lockers for vehicles to police departments. Outside of policing, smart locks have been normalized; they are the primary locking mechanism for millions of homes.

To be sure, the idea of using of this technology as a prophylactic for misuse of police firearms has mostly been the stuff of science fiction. The dystopian HBO series Watchmen tells the story of a police officer whose gun is secured by a remote locking mechanism in the dashboard of his vehicle. Despite recognizing that he is in danger, the officer is forced to answer a dispatcher’s agonizingly slow series of questions so that his gun can be remotely unlocked. As a result of the delay, the officer is unable to defend himself and is shot. While it is a tense and effective scene, it ultimately fails to do the underlying idea justice. Some critics described it as a “dig … at what it sees as liberal overreach” and as “lazily leaning on a conservative world view” in its reaction to a “sensible” reform. The fictional scene’s biggest shortcoming, however, is its failure to show that any implementation of remote lockboxes in the real world would allow immediate manual access without preapproval.

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I am not naïve; I expect that this measure will strike many police departments, unions, and officers as too extreme. They should realize, however, that a potentially larger number of readers will say that this measure does not goes far enough. For them, the solution is to take police off the streets, not to change how they behave. There can be no denying that defunding the police is a mainstream movement; in New York City, home of the country’s largest police force, more than half of the candidates running for mayor have promised significant cuts to the police budget. Police officers interested in self-preservation should support this measure: If only because it signals that they are willing to make sacrifices in the interest of public safety and racial equity without threatening their job security or changing their job description.

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Yes, there will arise the need to refine this policy over the course of its development. It is not obvious where the lockboxes should be placed, who should make up the composition of the reviewing body, whether override justifications should require probable cause of imminent danger or a more lenient standard like reasonable suspicion, or how severely that body should punish unjustified overrides. But these particulars cannot serve as an excuse to stand still. Departments should launch their own smart lockbox pilot programs so that they can learn what works and what doesn’t.

Many police departments have recognized that maintaining the status quo will do nothing to stop the disproportionate killing of Black men. They must further face the possibility that the gun has become a dangerous security blanket, one that, despite its apparent comfort, makes it harder for them to keep the peace. By making firearms a tool of exception, police could make fewer mistakes, cause less harm, and enhance their legitimacy. Embracing discomfort takes courage, but should we expect anything less from those who wear the badge?

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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