Guns and Lack of Trust Impede Police Reform

by Nick Gier

Guns and Lack of Trust Impede Police Reform

Black people want accountability for violence, but when they have a loved one murdered, they struggle to get the police to pay attention.—Monica Bell, Yale University

We give police an incredible amount of trust. And they deserve an equally incredible amount of accountability when they break that trust.—Jeremiah Ellison, Minneapolis City Councilman

There are at least four issues concerning police ref0rm: corrupt police unions, systemic racism, the lack of trust in minority communities, and the arms race between the police and many of those they attempt to arrest. In this column I will focus on the last two problems, which, I’m fear, will prove intractable for the foreseeable future.

Police Carried No Guns Until 1895

Colonial “Night Watchmen” carried no weapons, but in Southern states, as early as 1704, armed militias were enlisted to kidnap and terrorize runaway slaves and returned them to their masters. Northern cities continued the policy of unarmed civilian patrols until New York Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt issued handguns in 1895. Until then, city police, starting with Boston in 1838, carried only clubs, just like London’s Bobbies.

Police Torture Centers in Chicago

Even when freed slaves moved north, they have suffered discrimination and police violence to this day. Peter Baker describes what happened in Chicago’s police interrogation centers starting in 1992: “Blacks were beaten, shackled to steaming hot radiators, electrocuted, raped with sex toys,” and forced to confess crimes they had not committed. 

Jon Burge, the officer in charge of this torture, had applied electrostatic shock techniques that he had used against Viet Cong prisoners as a military police officer in Vietnam. Over 100 innocent men spent years in prison (some on death row), and over $100 million was eventually awarded to them. After 21 long years of investigation, Burge was finally found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice (not torture) in 2010.

Two Police Killings in London This Year

After Prime Minister Robert Peel established the London police force in 1829, they were affectionately called “Bobbies” or less often “Peelers.” Their only weapons were truncheons, although they had the option of carrying pistols on night patrols between 1884 and 1936, when that practice was discontinued. In a city that is 40 percent non-white, only two people in a population of 9.3 million have been killed by police in 2020.

From 2003 to 2013, British cops fired their weapons a total of 51 times, sometimes non-lethally. In stark contrast, the U.S., according to The Washington Post, has averaged 1,000 police killings each year since 2015. One could counter that British police must lose their lives at a greater rate than well-armed American cops. However, between 2000-2014 2,445 of the latter died in the line of duty whereas only 25 of the former.

Even when there were terrorist threats from Irish and Islamist militants, the police were, by a vote of 82 percent in 2006, the first ones to reject the idea that they should be armed. Since 1991, however, armed officers and swat teams are just a pager alert away.

Canadian Police Have Killed Blacks and Indigenous People

Just across the border, Canadian police have killed an average 267 people per year (if population is factored in) since 2015. Just as in the U.S., many of those who died were Black (37 percent in Toronto) or Indigenous, who accounted for 60 percent of the deaths in Winnipeg, even though they are only 11 percent of the population.

More Blacks are Purchasing Guns

More and more Blacks are purchasing and training with guns—an increase of 58 percent in 2020. The National African American Gun Association now has 30,000 members and 75 chapters nation-wide. A more militant Black Gun Owners Association is also recruiting aggressively.

For most of American history, Blacks were prohibited from possessing firearms, and police are still suspicious of Black gun owners. This past July, on his way to visit his mother, Steven Houston, a college-educated African American, was stopped by two Saginaw, Michigan policemen for a minor traffic infraction.

One of the officers saw a handgun on Houston’s passenger seat, and before he could tell them that he had a permit, the police had pulled their guns, dragged him out of his car, and handcuffed him. Once they realized that he had the permit, they patted him on the back and let him go. He is now suing the state for discrimination and assault.

Transfer of Military Equipment Blocked by Senate

British police believe that if they carried arms, they would appear as a military force in their communities. In stark and dangerous contrast, American police forces have been increasingly militarized. The problem with this, as The Economist explains, is that “military forces are designed to win wars, not trust. The army kills its enemies, but police are supposed to serve and protect.”

Alarmingly, in July of this year, the Senate rejected a bipartisan House bill that would halt the transfer of surplus military equipment to local police departments. What sort of message does an armored vehicle send to communities, especially those that have been terrorized for decades?

German Police Taught “Don’t Shoot”

In Germany police are in training for 130 weeks (vs. 19 weeks in the U.S.), and graduate with a bachelor’s degree, after attending various university classes, including law, ethics, and Muslim culture. Norbert Zohn, a Muslim living in Germany, praises German cops: “Their presence leads to calm. They make you feel safer.” This is just the opposite of what most American Blacks would say.

An American journalist visited German police academy, and the motto of the day was “Don’t Shoot.” Col. Uwe Thieme, the four-star senior police director, told her: “We try to make all police officers recognize that you are not a good guy if you are shooting. You are a good guy if you are not shooting.” In 2018 there were 1.3 police killings per million, while the U.S. rate was 35.

Shoot to Kill vs. Shoot to Maim

Compared to European police, their American counterparts have 20 times more hours in using force rather than training in reducing conflict. According to the European Convention on Human Rights, police are permitted to use deadly force only if it is “absolutely necessary,” while U.S. standard is merely “reasonable belief” that the officer is in danger.

Spanish police officers are required to “incrementally pursue verbal warnings, warning shots, and shots at nonvital parts of the body.” If their American counterparts did this, they would be in fear being fired at least punished.

Germany’s Immigrants and Crime

Germany’s low rate of police killings is remarkable because 20 percent of Germany’s population is now immigrants. The largest group are Turks who first came to Germany as guest workers 80 years ago. Crime among Germany’s Turks is low, except for Turkish gangs that commit 10 percent of the crimes in the nation’s criminal organizations.

German Turks have integrated well in society and the main problem is not crime committed by Turks, but discrimination and attacks against them. Soccer star Mesut Özil has left the national team, expressing the same frustration that many American Blacks do: “I was born and educated in Germany, so why don’t people accept that I am German?”

More recent migrants (an incredible 750,000 in 2015) have also experienced discrimination, but crime rates among these Afghans, Iraqis, and Syrians are just the same as ordinary Germans. Immigrants from North Africa, however, have committed violent crimes at a much higher rate, but overall Germany’s crime rate is still the lowest in 20 years.

American Trust Levels Down to 38%   

In the 1950s, Americans had interpersonal trust levels as high as Europeans (currently 58 percent), but only 38 percent of us now say that we have faith in others. Significantly, while 77 percent of whites trust the police, only 36 of Blacks do. It is no secret why that is the case.

In Sweden 64 percent believe that other people can be counted on. Levels of trust are 58 percent in Finland and much higher in Norway at 74 percent. Trust levels are also high in Denmark, but no recent data was available. Police killings in 2019 are just as low as Germany’s: one out of a million in Sweden, 1.8 in Finland, 1.9 in Norway, and zero in Denmark and Iceland.

The rejoinder that these countries are homogenous societies is no longer valid. At one time in the recent past Denmark had the per capita world record welcoming refugees. The Swedes have now surpassed the Danes, as, for example, more Iraqis have immigrated there in greater numbers than the U.S., who started the war, has meagerly allowed. Immigrant crime is up in Sweden, especially among young males, but the police have responded by not killing them.

Minority Communities Don’t Trust Police

The Huffington Post’s Michael Hobbes (7/23/20) reports that “in 2006, at the height of New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, 4 out of 5 Black adolescents said they had been stopped by the police in the previous year — compared to just 1 in 10 whites.”

Even though they comprise only 14.7 percent of the population, The Economist reports that “African Americans are nearly three times likelier than whites to be killed by police. In fact, being killed by police is now the sixth-leading cause of death for young Black men.”

Fewer 911 Calls in Minority Communities

Across the country there are fewer 911 calls from minority communities, primarily because people there don’t trust the police to respond humanely. When police begin criminal investigations in these communities, potential witnesses refuse to testimony for fear of incrimination.

Criminologist Wendy Regoeczi explains: “Police can say ‘we can protect you’ until they’re blue in the face, but if people don’t have faith in those statements, they’re not going to say anything — and for good reason.”

Trust once lost takes a long time to restore, and even more intractable is America’s attachment to guns. These problems must be solved before there is any hope for a reduction of police violence.

Nick Gier taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read his columns on civil rights at, and articles on the European welfare states at (Click on pdfs on both sites.) Email him at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *