Why so many gunshots?

In the United States, we live in a world where too many folks are shot. With guns so rampant in our country, it makes a difficult job for our police officers even more challenging. This may explain in part a bias to act when fear sets in. There are many fine police officers who do their jobs well day in and day out. Unfortunately, we do have an increasing number of situations that have arisen, where police officers may have acted rashly or too quickly. We need to evaluate these both within the profession and through the court system when necessary.

Yet, one of my concerns that does not get talked about enough is why are so many shots being fired? I am clearly concerned about the racial profiling that appears to be going on, as people of color are the ones being killed by police officers more so than other races. But, the number of shots is appalling to me as it seems double-digit shots are fired to subdue an alleged attacker in too many incidents.  What happened to shooting to wound an attacker? Why is it necessary to shoot a teen or twelve-year old boy eleven, fourteen, or sixteen times?

Bruce Springsteen wrote and powerfully sang a song a few years ago called “American Skin.” It is sometimes referred to by its subtitle of “41 Shots” which is the number of shots fired to kill a non-English speaking suspect who did not understand what he was being asked. He thought the police were out to get him and ran. When he pulled out his wallet, he was shot 41 times.

The fact that more Black youth are being shot is troublesome, but the number of shots the police officer feels obligated to use to defend himself or herself is also troubling. We need to be asking ourselves why? Why so many shots? Why are the shots fired so quickly? Were there no other actions that could have been taken?

In Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book “Blink” he mentioned the circumstances behind the Springsteen song. The essence of the book is we use gut instinct which is really our in-tune subconscious that sees situations before our conscious mind can register what is going on. In one example, he notes how a fireman told his colleagues to back quickly out of room as his experience was giving him an uneasy feeling. The fire was not burning as per the norm. What his subconscious experience told him was correct – the fire was actually beneath the room they entered and if they went in, they would be consumed by the fire when the floor collapsed.

Gladwell notes the same is true for police officers. We must train and retrain how to recognize danger and when danger is not present. Those few instances in the “blinking of an eye” matter. This is why the job is so hard. A judgment call has to be made and, unfortunately, those calls are not always right. With adrenalin flowing, the reaction can be to shoot often. I hope that is all it is. I would hate to believe there is an unstated rule somewhere that if an officer shoots someone, they need to be lethal. Yet, we must ask these questions, as the number of shots used to subdue someone are too common and too many.

The best suggestions beyond the training and retraining are two-fold. The police union needs to be as involved and engaged as a pilot union is around an air crash. We need all parties looking to see why something happened, not with the primary motivation to say the police officer was not without fault. Good people make mistakes. Good police officers make them, too. Let’s understand why and use that information to avoid it going forward. And, it needs to be said, not all police officers are equal in experience, talent and temperament, just like everyone else.

The other good suggestion is more community policing. Encounters with law enforcement officers should not only happen in negative situations, where you messed up or someone thinks you messed up. The more interactions that are positive will help reduce crime. More police officer visibility will help reduce crime.

Let me end that we need to get to better answers. A better answer does not include police officers getting shot. That serves no purpose other than making a bad situation worse. And, a life is lost. Saying All Lives Matter is 100% correct, but this theme usurps the reason for the Black Lives Matter protests. We need to help police officers serve the community better in a tough job. That involves training, evaluation and improvement and community policing. It also involves understanding that difficulty.

I recognize fully that as a White man I am treated differently and can go anywhere I want, treatment that a Black man is not afforded even when dressed in a suit. When a Black man is stopped by the law, he knows he must move deliberately or this may be the last thing he does on earth. Black youth are given “the talk” by their mothers to do this very thing – be respectful and move slowly. This is sage advice for all of us, but please know how hard a job the police officer has, even when less biased to act. All it takes is an instance and someone is dead. So, we must respect the law, while we still seek answers. But, we do need answers.


18 thoughts on “Why so many gunshots?

  1. Good post. I suspect the answer to your question about the number of shots being fired goes back to what Freud called the “aggressive instinct” coupled with fear. Once the trigger is pulled, it then seems to pull itself as the shooter vents his aggression against someone he fears (a fear that underlies his racist impulses). Camus shows this happening in his remarkable book “The Stranger” in which a Frenchman shoots an Algerian on the beach seven times. The shooting was supposed to be in self-defense, but the question recurs throughout the latter part of the novel: why seven times?? It’s your question!

    • Thanks Hugh. You add two excellent reference points. I keep coming back to the example of the Detroit police talking a 65 year old White man out of a rifle he was holding over 45 minutes, as contrasted to others shooting a Black youth multiple times so quickly. My thoughts go to the deceased whose last thoughts had to include “why are you shooting me?”

    • Thanks Raye. I appreciate the endorsement. Since I am not on Facebook or Twitter, I resort to those emails I send which go to about 750 people, including you. I am sure I am spam blocked by many, but I will always appreciate when people route my emails to others. This one will likely be sent in a few weeks. Have a great rest of your week. Keith

  2. I love this post – calm and well-reasoned. We need more of that in our society. My brother and sister-in-law are both retired police officers. We don’t often agree on politics, but I know that every day on the job, they wanted to do the right thing.

    • Janis, there are so many like your brother and sister-in-law. Good, hard working police officers. When these issues are not dealt with fairly and judiciously, they paint with an indicting brush, which is unfair to the many. That is why the many have to help solve this problem. The other similarity to the pilots looking into crashes is the post-mortem conferences that doctors and nurses have to understand why someone died in their hospital and what, if anything, could have been done better. Tell your brother and sister-in-law thanks for their service, Keith

  3. Note to Readers: The terrible tragedy in San Bernardino yesterday is so very frustrating that innocent lives, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, have been lost. It is frustrating that we refuse to act after such stuff becomes routine. And, it shows how difficult a job police have when citizens can be armed to teeth and wear body armor to commit an assault so easily.

  4. I admire every person in general and in the US in particular who becomes a police officer these days. Their job is not easy. I always thinkg how difficult it is to investigate withing weeks how someone should have acted with in a twinkle of an eye. But as you say, there might be needed better trainings for the officers. What I cannot understand (and what I did not know) is, that there is such a high number of shot “suspects” who are shot so often. Again as you said. In first place they “only” should be wounded for not being able to act anymore. Again, they are having a difficult and very dangerous job. For sure the racial aspect is a sad and unacceptable fact which simply cannot be in general but most of all for a police officers (or any other persons in service for people.)

    • Thanks Erika. Having lived here, you know we Americans like our guns. But, that comes at a horrible cost of leading the civilized world in gun deaths and police shootings of civilians. We must have better governance, but given the rhetoric and fear mongering, I worry about an increase in hate crimes.

      • I don’t think there is a problem with having guns… it is only the problem with misusing it. You can always get a weapon or make a weapon out of a straw if you want. The problem is the cause for hatread and frustration which make people misuse or actually use those guns. That is definiteyl something the government should finally think about! Nothing will change as long as they only scratch the surface.

      • Erika, one of our challenges is the lack of civility. So, arguments escalate and if a gun is present a death occurs. But, 2/3 of our gun deaths are suicide. We need better governance over guns. Americans of all stripes favor better background checks on all transactions and elongated waiting periods, which would help. Yet, our leaders are too beholden to and scared of the NRA and we won’t act.

      • Yes, the inhibition threshold is on a very low level. I understand what you mean. I just think since the tendency to violence is so strong already a knife would do it too – just basically. But I really get you!

  5. Beautifully written and well-reasoned. This issue is vital to me, because every time another black youth is killed, it feels like they have shot one of my kids. I’m too white to actually be related, but as a former school teacher I spent a lot of time talking kids through life problems, including racism and violence. Policemen are too ready to use force. They are supposed to talk to the suspects first, at least to advise them of their rights and what not to do. Somebody like Tamir Rice in Cleveland should never have to be buried for playing with a toy gun. That officer was probably never taught to talk to a kid in a friendly way. I have broken up enough fights in school to know that the it is the first words out of your mouth as the first responder that determines the outcome of the incident. Every rookie cop, especially the white ones, needs an old maid black or Hispanic former school teacher riding along to do the talking for them.

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