King, The End of Death as Deterrent, and Why The Police Should No Longer Carry Guns

Each January we witness the tragic beatific domestication of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The more radical nature of his message is annually watered down ignoring the more uncomfortable aspects of his words and witness. King was a man of peace and non-violence. And this non-violence was not simply a tactic employed by activists during direct actions. It was, as was the case for Gandhi, an all-encompassing ahimsa. Not just a tool, but also way of life.

It's easier to hear his words on racism than it is to contemplate his convicting prophetic message on violence, especially in our deeply fearful contemporary culture which is so quick to resort to armed protection to deter the entities that cause us anxiety.

King fought for Life and against death -- both the figurative and literal death that people were forced to face because of racism, militarism, and extreme materialism (what he called the triplets of evil). He fought against death, even as death was perpetually whispered to him as a potential deterrent.

Throughout his public ministry those fearful of the changes that King and other activists were calling and working for tried to deter them with violence and the possibility of being killed. The murders of Emmitt Till, Medgar Evers, Jimmi Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, the four beautiful little girls in Birmingham, and many others were meant to strike fear into their hearts and steer them away from working for change. Almost nightly death threats came to King's phone wherever he was.

But he did not let it stop him from working for change and from working for peace. He refused to be deterred. King was a free man. And that freedom from the fear of death allowed him to dream and to soar in powerful world changing ways. It allowed him to go to the mountaintop and see where we may go as a people.

In the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago, and as I reflect on the enduring strain between the police and people of color my thoughts have often returned to the timeless witness of Dr. King who had more than his fair share of difficult run-ins with the law. In particular I have held not only his message of peace and the beloved community, but also of how he got past the horrific use of death as a deterrent

Contemplating the end of death as a deterrent to me sheds light on the contemporary police/people of color dialectic. King's final speech that he delivered before being fatally shot in Memphis is known as his "Mountaintop speech." His final public words are so powerful because of its fearlessness in the face of death.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

But there is one line in that speech that most miss. Contextually, he is speaking about how he and others have faced the brutality of police forces in various cities around the country and responded with a heart changing non-violence. He says:

"We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces."

He of course is referring to disarming them of their hate and racially discriminatory violence. But what if he meant a literal disarming of their deadly weapons as well.

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We as a society have surely advanced to a point where we can question whether or not police officers (who have sworn to keep the peace, to protect, and to serve the citizens under their watch) need to carry lethal force. We surely can at least consider whether societally it is healthy for cops to carry deadly firearms be it for actual use while on duty (which is devastating and tragic every single time it occurs) or as a deadly deterrent.

What might policing look like if our officers did not carry lethal weapons?

It is telling that this question astonishes. A cop without a gun, we believe, is in fact not a cop. How could they do their job without a firearm?

I raise this question not out of anger or from a punitive desire resulting from the high profile police killings of the last couple of years, but rather out of a respect for the police and a desire to bridge the gulf that has developed between community members and those courageous officers who seek to dedicate their lives to being peace keepers (the original intent of having a domestic police force).

In an age where moments can be captured by omnipresent hand-held devices, and in a time when information can be shared globally in an instant, images of police officers using excessive force and in too many cases taking lives, have caught the attention and broken the hearts of millions of individuals who now know the names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Laquan McDonald. Tragedies like these at the hands of racist or careless or PTSD suffering cops is not new, but the greater awareness and outrage over them is.

Thus, the conversations about reforming community policing and how officers are trained have begun in earnest. Already many changes are beginning to appear around the country like body cameras, sensitivity training, increased diversity on forces, and community oversight (rather than internal investigations of complaints against police). There is still a long way to go on each of these potential changes, but the fact that we are even exploring reform is positive. I am hopeful.

Yet, I think that we can push these conversations about police reform further and do something special in regards to the future of policing in our country, but it will take our leaders in law enforcement, government, and industrial innovation wrestling with and imaging what the future of policing and what our society might look like if our police officers did not carry lethal weapons.

Why should we consider the cessation of arming police officers with deadly force?

The first answer to this stems from a basic reverence for all human life. Granted as a clergy person I see this from a religious paradigm where all are children of God created in God's own image. Who are we to intentionally take the life of any other human being? And everyone is someone's child or sibling or parent or love. Each death is devastating no matter who that person is or what that person may have done.

But beyond spiritual or philosophical reasons I am motivated to consider the cessation of deadly force carried and used by police officers because quite simply far fewer individuals would die at the hands of the police.

In 2015 at least 1,202 people were killed by cops with the Washington Post counting 986 of those individuals dying from fatal gun shot wounds. If officers did not carry lethal guns on them that number would automatically plummet extending many lives -- most typically young and poor men.

Much of this stems from how officers use their firearms in their efforts to deescalate situations. It is extraordinarily difficult for a police officer to assess the nature of a threat and ones own personal safety in the split second that an officer has at the scene of a potential crime, especially when one's own life is potentially on the line. I hear that. Therefore discerning whether one should use their Taser, their pepper spray or club or something more deadly can't always happen in the very limited decision making time available.

But the presence of a gun with it being so ultimate makes that an officer's go to "problem solver" allowing them to take control of a situation quickly. The situation with former officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown captures this very clearly. Darren Wilson saw the unarmed Michael Brown as a potential criminal and as a potential threat. To deescalate and take control of the situation he pulled out and discharged his gun. A Taser, pepper spray, perhaps even physical restraint could have stopped Michael. If there was no gun involved or available, Michael would still be alive (he'd be in college now) and Wilson would still be on the force.

If Officer Jason Van Dyke did not have access to lethal weapons, Laquan McDonald would still be alive, Van Dyke wouldn't have had to lie, and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel might not be facing the demands for him to step down. Van Dyke and Wilson would have had to figure out another way to deescalate the situation. They might have had to still use force, but the chances of it being a lethal encounter would become greatly minimized. A racist acculturation that allows for an officer like Wilson to see Michael Brown not as one of the young citizens of the community he is to protect, but as a "hulk" or "demon" certainly led to him using deadly dehumanizing force (would he have seen him the same way had Brown been White or a Woman?), but Wilson being racist was only a part of the problem. A racist having access to deadly weaponry is the other part.

A decrease in the number of deaths by police would save lives, but it would also save police forces and cities literally millions of dollars spent on settlements with the families of victims. Money that could be spent in others ways -- like developing alternative technologies and innovative ways to stop and deter individuals from disturbing the peace and committing crimes.

It is hard to be a police officer. And this is a difficult time to even explore disarming police officers of lethal force when they are being shot at by people who hate cops. While a relatively very few number of police officers are shot and killed every year (48 nationwide in 2014 according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund), one cop killed is too many. But the point of proposing a disarming of lethal force isn't to leave officers more vulnerable. In taking away lethal weapons we can and I pray will replace them with better just as effective non-lethal weapons, which would ultimately make policing safer.

Certainly we have advanced as a society enough where we can develop weaponry that serves the purpose of stopping a fleeing criminal or detaining an out of control individual without taking their lives. Future generations will look back on us as being barbaric and imprecise for our weapons and tactics. Futurists and tech innovators law enforcement needs you! Smart guns are a step in the right direction, but non-lethal ones are the destination. Gun manufacturers would profit tremendously if they moved in this direction of developing non-lethal but effective firearms. The ability to defend oneself without killing another would be something that a lot of people who are anxious for their own safety would buy. I am accused from time to time of hating guns. I don't hate guns. I hate that guns (can) kill people.

We can build a better weapon.

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The oft-missed reality is that most police officers go their whole careers without discharging their guns while on duty. In many places entire forces go years without shooting a weapon while in uniform. The overwhelming majority of officers hope and pray that they won't be in a situation where they will have to take the life of another. Shooting another human being is a life-altering event that is very difficult to get over. It's traumatic to be shot and it's traumatic to shoot another. And so if officers are barely using their guns, why do departments spend so much of their budgets on purchasing guns and firearm training? Should forces in very low crime areas even carry guns on them?

Individuals who disagree with me on this issue will say "yes" because of the fact that "the bad guys" knowing that officers have guns deters them from doing crime and/or attacking an officer.

The notion that many law enforcement officials see some of the citizens under their watch as bad guys is an important idea to address as officer training is being revamped around the country. How can officers be focused on protecting and serving only the good ones and keep them safe from the bad ones? As a minister I was trained to not only minister to the good members of a flock, but to see everyone, imperfect as we all are, as members to be cared for.

But does death as deterrent work in our society? This in many ways is one of the points of the death penalty. I abhor the death penalty and am thankful that national opinion is trending towards abolishing it. Not only is it an anachronistic brutality, but also it exists in a racist and imperfect criminal justice system that sentences people of color to death at rates far worse than their White counterparts who do the same crimes. Some see it as a form of justice after a severe crime has been committed. And others see the executions of criminals as serving as a warning to other would be criminals that "if you do likewise, you too will face death." One may ask however does the death penalty deter crime? If we stopped executing people would crime suddenly spike?

Likewise, nations possess nuclear weapons with the intent of deterring others from attacking them. No world leaders want to use their nuclear weapons. The world has seen the clumsy, indiscriminate devastation that nuclear bombs bring. No one wants that again. But in a most uncreative way, many nations hold onto them as a deterrent from war.

Like the death penalty and like nuclear weapons, many police forces continue to carry guns as a perpetually present deterrent.

There is something very dangerous about operating in a currency of fear.

The use of death as a deterrent signals not only a society that does not seriously value every life, but also one that lacks imagination. It brings not a "realistic" view of human nature, but rather, it reinforces an inhumane way of dealing with conflict and perceived threats. How pitiful it is that we must resort to fear as the rope that restrains us from doing bad. We can do better than that as a nation and as a society. That's lazy. Just like the death penalty and nuclear weapons are lazy, inaccurate, and ineffective ways of keeping the peace.

We cannot un-invent the gun. But we can improve upon it. What might the future of policing look like with just as effective but non-lethal weapons? I think if those brave public servants who dedicate their professional lives to keeping us safe covenanted to never take the lives of those whom they have sworn to protect, we would live in a much safer more life-affirming world.

I have been afraid to write this. There is a type of death that occurs when taking dissenting views. And death is frightening. Death is a powerful deterrent be it figurative, vocational, or literal. But I thought it important during this season where we celebrate Dr. King to follow his lead and not be afraid of death. In conquering our own fear of death, let us bring down the aspects of our society that rely on the fear of death as a deterrent. For when we do, we can come closer to being free at last.