The problem with zero-risk attitudes

I was listening to a report on NPR about the problem of police are reacting with overwhelming force in so many situations that do not warrant it, and in the process shooting and killing people who later turn out to be quite innocent.

What shocked me about the story was the statement by one veteran police officer who felt that the intimidating gear and weaponry and tough attitude should be maintained and he disapproved of the moves to make the police seem less threatening to people, saying “I think an officer will eventually get killed.”

And I think that this is the problem. He seems to think that the first duty of police officers is to protect themselves, not the public. He seems to feel that it is ok if innocent people get killed in order to create zero risk for police. But why would you sign up for a dangerous profession if your first instinct is self-preservation? The motto of some police departments is “To Protect And Serve”. Protect whom? If your job is to protect others, that means taking on some risk to yourself.

Seeking to have zero risk to themselves inevitably results in a shoot-first-ask-questions-later policy, and leads to the many tragedies we now have. I am not suggesting that police not take reasonable steps to protect themselves. But they are signing up for a dangerous job and there is always some risk involved in not being too quick to protect oneself.

This is why we see these terrible tragedies of homeowners with guns shooting innocent people out of a misguided fear that they were in danger. I do not own a gun. Hence I am putting myself at some risk from some intruder. But if I had a gun, there is a danger that I too might kill some person who did not intend me any harm.

The same zero-risk mentality has permeated other areas too. Nowadays a US president has to think carefully before sending in soldiers to fight in wars because of the risk of them being killed or injured. But sending in unarmed drones? Sure, why not? As long as there is no risk to US soldiers and pilots, and the only people who get killed and injured are those in other countries who belong to a different tribe from us, people seem to be quite unconcerned.


  1. doublereed says

    When police treat the population as the enemy, they understand the message. They’re the enemy.

    I always thought that the police was supposed to protect and serve the community. That still might be true in some areas.

  2. John Horstman says

    I concur wholeheartedly. The entire point of having police departments is to have a set of people who take risk to the safety of the public onto themselves in exchange for the the sole privilege to legally exercise violence (when absolutely necessary) and protection from certain laws to which the rest of us are subject (traffic laws, unlawful detention, in some cases assault, etc.). But the whole premise is that the police are supposed to put protecting the public above even their own safety. This is not the approach taken by officers like this, who greatly endanger both suspects and bystanders.

  3. drken says

    Zero risk is pretty much the US terrorism policy. We have to make sure we get every terrorist everywhere to make sure we are never attacked. That this strategy causes more harm than good is never really considered.

  4. ianeymeaney says

    I work and live in the liberal haven of NYC. We have armed guards where I work, all of whom are ex-NYPD. Talking with them is rather interesting: they lament the loss of stop-and-frisk, would always find ways to arrest “those people”, would come up with excuses to arrest anyone who gave them any attitude, etc. NYC is the safest big city in the US, but these guys think that they are patrolling Fallujah. I can only imagine what it’s like in other places.

  5. lorn says

    Preemptive escalation and shows of force does work. Kind of like the stories floated about marijuana causing insanity kind of works. Shock and awe works for the first few times but, given that there are definite limits to exactly how much damage you can cause without repercussions, and people live through the worse shows of force while observing those limits, people tend to be harder to awe with each iteration.

    Talking to police, I used to work in a bar frequented by police, I get the sense of the Thomas Jefferson quote “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Police suffer under the long held default of having to be tougher than everyone else and that police are not allowed to lose or back down. A cop is only allowed to lose under one of two conditions: the officer is unconscious, or dead.

    I talked to one officer that was worse for wear. He had a black eye and was clearly badly bruised. Over beer he related that they came to serve an arrest warrant. The guy was big, and mean, but when they first rolled up he was reasonable. They told him to lay on the ground, a mix of wet grass and broken glass. The guy turned around with his hands behind his back and told them he wouldn’t resist if they just cuffed him and hauled him off. But under no conditions would he willingly lay down. The officer related that he kind of knew the guy and that he thought there was no need to have him humiliated by having to lay down but that his supervising officer was present and that training and doctrine, the rules, said the guy had to lay down before being cuffed. So they called in a few more units and tried to gang tackle him to get him to lay down. In the struggle one officer got bit, another wrenched his knee, and he got the black eye and bruises. The guy ended up getting beat up pretty bad, but only after he had pounded the police pretty well.

    The officer was lamenting that the rules weren’t working for the police. The injuries didn’t have to happen if they could have just treated the guy with a little dignity, taken him at his word, and hooked him up while standing. Unfortunately the rules, at that time and in that department, didn’t allow that option. So they had to do it the hard way.

    It has to be noted that female police officers, with their increased leeway and prerogative to back down and negotiate, tend to get involved with fewer physical confrontations, have fewer complaints, and the suspects, and other police working with the female officers tend to suffer fewer injuries.

    Police seldom have choice as to what they can do. They don’t write the rules and they can be penalized if they fail to follow the rules to the letter. Fortunately some departments give the officers more leeway. Another double-edged sword if there ever was one.

  6. my2cents says

    I was in a heated discussion with someone about this the other day. I pointed out two interesting facts. One the job of police officer isn’t even the top ten most dangerous jobs according the fatality reports while on the job. So the notion that their job is extremely dangerous is somewhat of a farce considering the fact that garbagemen, taxi drivers, construction workers, and farmers have more dangerous jobs. Yet those professions rarely go around creating this idea that their life is constantly in danger the way police officers do. The second fact was, last year there were a total of 100 police deaths in the united states and not all of these are deaths from them being shot or killed by criminals. Accidents, heart attacks on duty and things of that nature are included in this number. On the other hand over 1000 citizens were killed by police last year alone with over 25% of those people being unarmed. So I think we need to squash the attempts by police officers to create this idea that their job is so inherently dangerous.

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