How Many Innocent Lives is a Police Officer Worth?

This is a very real question that we’ll have to try to answer in the near future.

Growing up, I had assumed zero.  I guess I was wrong.

I don’t like quoting stats because highlighting a single data point within a pattern can be misleading.  But 66 unarmed people were killed by the US police last year.  Up from 48 the year before.  I don’t know all of their stories.  I haven’t seen all the body cam footage.  But from what I have seen, something desperately needs to change.

I’ve known about the darker places of the internet for a long time.  I’ve watched the Yakuza chop fingers off, I’ve watched public beheadings in the middle east, I’ve seen military executions, and I even watched a Boeing exec get fucked to death by a horse.  I know what’s out there, but I don’t gravitate towards it.  When I watch, I see moments of weakness.  Moments of confusion.  Moments of darkness.  They inform, but they don’t inspire.  This year, I watched more footage of people being killed than any other year, and most of that was body cam footage from police officers.

I don’t watch them expecting to make excuses for the police or the people they’re pointing guns at.  I recognize that for all parties involved, it’s probably the most stressful moment of their entire lives and  people don’t always perform well under pressure.  What I try to do is understand what exactly is happening and how we could’ve avoided the loss of an innocent life.

In each video that I’ve seen, the person who was shot ‘reached’ for something.  Sometimes it was the waistband, sometimes the back pocket, but in every case, there was a motion that suggested to the police officer that they were drawing a concealed weapon.  That’s the moment where the officer went from pointing a weapon to taking an innocent life.  I think that’s a moment worth exploring.

I’ve never faced a situation like that before.  Perhaps it’s like pointing a rifle at a bear that’s getting closer and closer.  You don’t want to kill the bear, but you know that if the bear notices you, it’ll likely charge, and you’re unlikely to survive.  I always warn against making decisions out of fear.  It tends to use the least intelligent parts of the brain.  And I don’t think that analogy holds up anyways.  You can’t have a dialogue with a bear.  You don’t already have the bear in a position of submission.  You don’t have the other tools necessary to de-escalate the situation.  If that’s your state of mind in these situations, then they never should’ve let you out of basic training.  But that’s not what I’m seeing when I’m watching these videos.

I’m seeing people who lack the emotional stability to carry firearms.  I’m seeing people who have yet to grasp the value of a human life.  I’m seeing people grappling with their own issues while pointing a gun at another human being.  I’m seeing the fear that comes with a society who thinks everyone should be armed with deadly force.  I’m seeing a bad problem made worse with military grade weaponry.  I’m seeing a failure of training.  I see a corrupt organizational culture.  Worst of all, I see a problem that could be easily solved and that the police don’t seem motivated to fix.

All officers should be supported with an extensive psychological health program.  That starts with a screening process designed to keep the trigger-happy cosplay-commandos out.  Then it continues with ongoing evaluations and therapy.  We need to accept that the damage officers take out there isn’t just physical.  Rather than putting them through the shit and expecting them to sort things out on their own, we need to give them the tools and support necessary for them to stay healthy, inside and out.  If an officer watches his partner get lit up, or is first on the scene to something you think you’d only see in a Rob Zombie movie, we need to be there for them.  If that’s not something they can come back from, help them find something else.  And this all needs to be done by a third party which doesn’t have to answer to the politics of law enforcement.

The failure of training seems to be the one that everyone agrees on, including the police.  But it doesn’t seem to be working.  Perhaps I can make a few suggestions.  Don’t escalate the situation to the point where the person is so scared that they lose the ability to think rationally.  Don’t ask them to do something that might make them reach for something, when you’re going to assume that what they’re reaching for is a weapon.  I’d like to put that all under humanity 101 but here’s the real change I’d like to see:  If there are multiple officers targeting the same suspect, all with weapons-hot, wait until you can see an actual weapon.  You’re right, it’s only a split second between seeing the weapon and being shot at, but you should be trained to make that split second decision properly.

Mistakes will still be made.  Waiting until you see the weapon might mean a few extra dead officers.  But it’ll also mean that just about every single unarmed civilian who was murdered by a police officer this year would still be alive.  That’s the trade off.  A few brave souls who put their lives on the line so that the innocent may live in peace.  That’s what you signed up for.  That is your glory.  That is your honor.  Own it.  That is the proud and noble history of law enforcement.  What we’re seeing now is gang violence.

But that’s not going to change anytime soon.  Especially with the commander and chief excited about deploying more military grade equipment into local municipalities.  I can’t help but think that the general anxiety that the country is experiencing plays into this as well.  Protests, riots, terrorism, political instability, cultural divisions… maybe everyone is a little on edge.  There’s gotta be something else we can do.

I often say that if both people are looking for something reasonable, compromise is just a lack of imagination.  I think this qualifies.  Police officers would like to not be shot by a suspect who may or may not have a concealed weapon.  Suspects who are trying to comply, would like to not be shot whether or not they have a concealed weapon on them.  Police officers would like to not be at risk of being assaulted by a weapon as they try to place a suspect into custody.  Suspects who are trying to comply would like to not be shot by an officer while being placed into custody.  There’s always that risk that as soon as an officer takes his finger off the trigger, things go sideways.  There’s always a chance that when the suspect makes an unexpected movement, things go sideways.  So we need a way for officers to subdue suspects, without having to close the distance or take the finger off the trigger.  Tranquilizer darts.

I’m not going to bother looking up what’s on the market right now that might work because I think that if this was going to be deployed, it would have to be a custom job.  You’d need a compound that worked quickly, effectively, and left no side-effects.  When you approach the scene, and you can’t determine whether or not the person has a weapon?  Tell them that.  Tell them to go belly down with their arms where you can see them, and that you’re gonna shoot them with a tranquilizer dart.  When they wake up, they’ll be in cuffs in the back of a squad car and everyone can figure out what happened.  Crazy junkie on bath salts?  Tranq dart.  Guy pulls a knife from 20 feet away?  Tranq dart.  In just about every scenario short of someone firing live rounds at you, tranq dart.

The other solution that’s crossed my mind is gender equality.  The ratio of male to female officers in American law-enforcement is about 9:1.  I can’t help but wonder if the boys in blue would be a little less trigger happy if there were a few more girls around.  But women aren’t as big and strong as men, and etc., etc.  True, but are we so sure that size and strength are the most important qualities of a law enforcement officer?  Maybe thinking that size and strength are the most important qualities is an issue unto itself.  If we saw a 1:1 ratio of men to women in law-enforcement, I can’t help but think that the police would see a dramatic improvement across the board.  Reduced discrimination, reduced police brutality, and fewer shootings of unarmed civilians to start.  Right now, I see police walking the streets like the foot soldiers of law-enforcement.   In some of the uglier scenarios, they look like gang members protecting the turf of the police state.  I can’t help but think that if we encouraged gender equality within the police, they might just find their way back to protecting and serving.

A Solution to Gun Violence

I like guns.  I appreciate the engineering, they’re fun to shoot, and it’s a skill I enjoy developing.  That said, I’ve only been out shooting a few times and while I wouldn’t turn down an invitation, it’s not big on my list of priorities.  What’s actually higher on my list of priorities is coming up with a long overdue solution to a very current problem: gun violence.

I guess I should start by laying out a few pieces of my framework on this one.  I agree that guns are fun to shoot and that people should have the ability to protect their families.  I also think that guns as they are today cause more problems than solutions and something needs to change.  When both sides are asking for something reasonable, compromise is a lack of imagination.

The first thing that people have to acknowledge is that this has nothing to do with the history of the country or the second amendment.  This is a conversation about how can we keep having fun at the range while protecting ourselves and our families, without putting lethal weapons in the hands of irresponsible people.

Part of how I arrived here is in observing the US’s global nuclear policy.  Effectively, the US focuses on limiting the number of countries with access to nuclear weapons because it’s risky to have that much lethal power available to someone who’s intentions you can’t be certain of.  So they go around the world intervening and restricting nuclear programs – perhaps rightfully so.  Personally, I think there will just about always be something more sensible for a government to invest in than nukes, but I’m also empathetic to the only reason that they give: we want to be able to protect ourselves from a hostile government.


On a global scale, America agrees that people should have limited access to deadly weapons.  On a domestic scale, they disagree.  I’m pointing out the hypocrisy so that we can agree that guns and gun violence aren’t an ‘American thing’ or part of our culture.  The situation that we’re in now is caused by mental illness, bad government, and a lack of innovation.  Mental illness is something that will take a cultural shift, bad government will take a revolution, but innovation is something we can tackle now.

So how do we close the gap?  How do we give everyone what they want?  Easy.

Non-lethal ammo.

Whether you’re at a gun range, or keeping a gun under your bed for home defense, you don’t need to kill your target.  There is literally zero need for a recreational target shooter to need lethal ammunition.  I would go so far as to say that without the risk of death, shooting ranges would be significantly more popular.  Further innovations would lead to a variety of non-lethal munitions, further diversifying the sport.

For home defense, I suspect most people would agree that if they had the choice, would rather incapacitate than kill.  The reality is very few of us, if any, have the wisdom necessary to know when it’s appropriate to take a life.  As we continue to be reminded, most who think they do are wrong.  If we can agree on that, let’s agree that the reason we want guns isn’t so that we can kill each other, or even kill someone who poses a threat to us, it’s about keeping ourselves safe.  We need a non-lethal ammunition that can reliably incapacitate.

The non-lethal options that exist today hasn’t proven viable, so we need to innovate.  I’m not smart enough to know exactly what this product or these products would look like but I do have an idea on how we could get there.  First the government announces an intent to shift from lethal weapons to non-lethal weapons.  Then, allocate $100 million to a venture capital fund and have that fund approach universities across America, looking to invest in companies developing alternative munitions.   This will spur a wave of innovation in the direction of non-lethal munitions and with a little bit of time, we should arrive at a better mouse trap.  Who knows, maybe we’ll end up with a Star Trek-esque stun gun.

The idea is that if we could design a weapon that was easier to use, barely needed to be aimed, and put your home invader into a comatose state until the authorities arrived, why would you want a classic pistol?  It wouldn’t increase your chances of defending yourself, only your chances of harming the other person.  If we can agree that the people who want to keep using lethal ammunition because it increases their chances of being able to hurt people shouldn’t have access to lethal ammunition, I think we’re all on the same page.  If we could get alternative munitions to the point where they were this safe and easy to use, imagine what it would do for everyone’s personal safety.

I know, I know, I forgot something.  Or rather saved it for last.  Hunting.  I’ll admit I didn’t quite have it figured out when I started writing this but a thought occurred to me while I was writing and it might be a good one.  The one recreational scenario where lethal ammunition does make sense is when you’re hunting, especially when you’re hunting for food.  Hunting for sport should probably be non-lethal to begin with so for the moment, let’s focus on hunting for food.  We need the ammunition to be lethal for our target, but preferably, only our target.  It would be nice to not have to worry about shooting other hunters.  If that’s our criteria, we could probably innovate our way out of this one too.  So we need a bullet that can be fired from a standard rifle which upon impact, would kill a… let’s say moose, but if it hit a person, would be non-lethal.  Sounds to me like a miniaturized dart (like from a tranquilizer gun) containing a compound that would kill a moose while leaving a personal unharmed.  Not only would that prevent nearly all hunting accidents, it may also be a more humane way to hunt.

When reasonable people are asking for reasonable things, compromise is a lack of imagination.  People should be able to protect themselves.  Protecting yourself isn’t the same as hurting someone else though.  If you want to protect yourself by hurting others, you need help.  Let’s find a means to protect ourselves without hurting others, and find a way to help others who haven’t yet figured out why hurting others just about always creates more problems than solutions.