Imagine an Unarmed Police

The Case for Unarmed Police

“Disarming police does not have to be seen as impossible. It can be something to seriously discuss if we are to heal and move forward as a nation…”

In the mid-1970s, I loaded my kids into our station wagon for a camping trip from Minnesota to Maine, Nova Scotia and, by ferry boat, on to St. John’s, Newfoundland.

It was there that I noticed local police were unarmed. I asked one of the constables about this and he readily supported being unarmed. I asked him what they do when confronting an aggressive, armed citizen – especially here in Newfoundland where many residents were recreational hunters. “Oh,” he responded, “If we run into someone like that we tell him to calm down or we will have to go and retrieve our weapons from the station. Usually, this resolves the matter.”

Earlier, I had studied police in Europe including those in London who unarmed and resisted efforts by some members in the community to arm them. They were very adamant to me about not carrying firearms.

How many nations around the world have unarmed police? Roughly, nineteen. Police in Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, the United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland), the Maldives, and thirteen other countries do not carry firearms unless the situation warrants being armed.

But what about us? Would it be possible to disarm police in a nation noted for its possession of personal weapons —to repeal our beloved Second Amendment? And why would we want to?

In 1973, after I had been chief of police in Madison for four months, an annual, historically violent, student block party was scheduled in a few weeks. It had not been held for a few years because the last one involved riot-like behaviors, teargassing, arrests and injuries to both police and students.

Now, I had to plan a response. Internally, the pressure was to gear-up and get ready for a battle. Instead, I retained outside, academic consultants to help us in both our approach and training. I had been recently quoted by the press as committed to “conflict-management” as a police strategy. We consulted with crowd experts, psychologists, and academics. Our intent was to craft an approach that kept the peace and avoided confrontation and arrest.

I asked for volunteers within the department to help me. Thankfully, a number of younger officers stepped up to work with me and our consultants to craft a non-violent response to the event.

One of the recommendations from the officers who would be assigned to the event was to go unarmed. I was stunned, but also proud that these young officers would recommend this approach. As it was, I thanked them for this recommendation, but I could not approve it. I was a brand-new chief and had too much too lose. Yes, I chickened out.

But I did accept their other recommendations which were equally thoughtful and creative. They would work solo, greet and converse with the partygoers as they arrived, and not wear their uniform hats (to present a less-authoritarian presence).

This was a department that in the past had disciplined officers for not wearing a headcover when on foot or outside their patrol car! Students coming to the block party saw a difference right away – single officers, smiling, conversant and not wearing hats!

Small, observable, tactical decisions can make a big difference. The last event in that neighborhood resulted in physical arrests and injuries. This year the large student gathering and drink-fest went off without conflict and the students cleaned up the street after the event. It was a big win early in my career.

But what about disarming police? This is what I primarily think about it; my hypothesis: When the threat of deadly force is taken away as a potential in every police encounter with citizens, the nature of the interaction changes — and it changes for the better.

Until “de-fund” police” recently became part of the conversation after George Floyd’s death by police in Minneapolis, it was a non-starter. Now, I believe it needs deeper discussion and possible consideration for the future of American policing.

Unlike our nation’s military, a police officer’s work does not usually involve being threatened with a firearm and confronting an “enemy.” Fully 95% or more of police work does not involve dealing with an armed or dangerous citizen.

The idea is not new. The 1967 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice recommended that police agencies field Community Service Officers (CSOs) to handle many police tasks. They would be unarmed and perform many community-oriented police duties and take a load off regular (and armed) police.

(in the late 1960s, I incorporated CSOs into the Burnsville (MN) Police Department where I served as chief. They responded to “minor” police calls and Ben conducted routine traffic enforcement duties while unarmed.

The 1967 Commission also recommended the establishment of a “Police Agent” who would be college-educated and respond to the more complicated and sensitive aspects of police work. While some departments still use CSOs today, the Police Agent recommendation fell by the wayside. (It would not be too far-fetched today to establish the three ranks of police: armed Police Agents and unarmed Police Officers and CSOs.)

I submit this idea based on over 30 years experience as a police officer and an almost equal amount of years studying the police function. If we are serious about fielding police who are trusted by the community they serve and be expected to effectively work with all segments of our diverse society, they will have to be perceived as helpers, serving others above themselves – even to the point of serving unarmed!

This will no doubt will be difficult. Far too long, many in our nation’s police service have been seduced into the role of “warrior cop.” They see themselves literally as occupying soldiers in a hostile environment. Yet, deep down, they know that their daily work does not demand such a hostile presence and building the trust that must exist if they are to be safe and effective in their work.

Realistically, and before we go too far here, the best way of disarming the police would demand a parallel dis-arming of the public at large. I would suggest that the possession of handguns and “open-carry” firearms would have to be prohibited. I find it somewhat strange to see uniformed police officers showing up to monitor and protect protesters and, at the same time, see a group of citizen “militia members” showing up wearing camouflaged uniforms, helmets, body armor, and brandishing semi-automatic firearms and other weapons. This does not help the police do their job of protecting the First Amendment!

In my day, these men would have been rounded up and dis-armed because they were considered to be dangerous and disorderly. How times have changed.

Far away, in white enclaves, police are trusted and applauded. But in our inner cities, police are often not seen as helpful, even dangerous; instead, they are frequently viewed as “the enemy;” occupiers who do not have the interests of the community at heart. Police are often viewed as more interested in protecting themselves than serving those who live in the district to which they are assigned. Race is seen as “different” along with sexual orientation, and immigrant status. This does not lead to trust-building!

So, how could disarmament work? How would the nation go about re-imaging the role of police; shifting it from “warrior” to “guardian-helper”? For many years as a police leader, I maintained that if we would enact reasonable controls on our nation’s firearms, I would join a movement to disarm. After all, police could respond to armed persons who threaten others by doing just as the Newfoundland police did – go back to the station and get their weapons.

If our nation’s police get serious about restoring community trust and support from those with whom they have the most conflict, what better gesture could there be than to disarm and take away fear and threat of deadly force present in each encounter with police? Is an armed police officer. and the inherent threat of deadly force, the best way to solve a problem and maintain social order?

When police are seen as trustful, community helpers working with, and for, community members, they become extremely effective in maintaining order in the communities to which they are assigned because they are appreciated and supported.

Let this be something for us to consider as we move forward as a nation. Disarming police does not have to be seen as impossible. It can be something to seriously discuss if we are to heal and move forward as a nation.

Dreams have a way of becoming reality.