Over the last 20 years, the use of firearms by police in New York City has declined radically in response to changing department policies, better training, a shifting law enforcement environment and of course changes in the character of the city itself. That’s good news for New Yorkers as well as police officers, because any time weapons become involved, it escalates the danger and the stakes of the situation. There’s a much higher risk of serious injury or death, and it comes with much closer scrutiny by law enforcement organizations and the public, as well.
Which is why it’s worrying that in the summer of 2013, the number of incidents in which police have drawn their guns has increased. Last week in particular was a bad one, although fortunately no one was killed. Police drew their firearms on four separate occasions, including an assault in progress and a suspected firearms violation. In all the cases, the officers involved could justify their use of lethal force: they were concerned for their wellbeing and that of bystanders given that suspects were armed (or potentially so according to good evidence) and clearly dangerous.
In the most potentially explosive case, officers arrived to find a suspect attacking a woman with a knife. When he failed to respond to orders to stop and drop the weapon, an officer fired a shot into his abdomen. Another officer fired shots after warning three young men to stop as they tried to enter a van the officer suspected held a gun that had been used in a shooting on a different occasion. In another case, two officers fired at a vehicle when the driver attempted to escape. Three plainclothes officers also drew their weapons, in their case in response to a man who approached them and fired upon them.
Each of the cases will of course be thoroughly investigated to determine the exact circumstances and whether the officers involved acted appropriately, but they’re raising some larger and important questions. Why are police drawing their weapons more? What kinds of implications does this have for the City itself? And what steps does the police force plan to take to deal with the issue, given that the United States in general is increasingly restless about the use of force by police officers, particularly when it comes to shootings involving young Black men?
It’s possible that New York is becoming more violent, and certainly statistics bear that out; one of the reasons police used their guns more historically was that there was more violent crime, with much higher risks for officers on the job. They were forced to draw their weapons as a result of more guns on the street along with other potentially dangerous weapons, and many New York neighborhoods were more dangerous than they are today.
Sometimes, during periods of economic desperation, communities can experience a spike in violent crime, with hate crimes in particular becoming an issue, as seen with a recent rise in LGBQT-related hate crimes in the city. That could be what’s occurring here, in which case police officers might simply be adapting to a changing city.
They’re also facing the infamous uptick in the crime rate that can happen in brutally hot cities during the summer; Chicago is most infamous for this, with violence typically going up by the lake significantly in the summer months thanks to the longer days, heat and fact that many people are out of school or on shortened summer work schedules.
Or the nature of the force could be changing. Despite national scrutiny of police shootings, the NYPD might be relaxing standards and not training officers as vigorously, or they could feel protected by their mayor’s staunch defense of racial profiling, stop and frisk, and other tactics heavily criticized by civil rights activists. Thanks to what feels like more of a license from City Hall, police officers could feel more confident pushing the boundaries when it comes to deciding when, where and how to use their weapons, erring on the side of excessive force rather than caution to protect themselves and the people around them.
What’s clear is that a hard look is necessary to determine what’s going on with this minispike in police shootings. It might be a blip on the radar, or it could be a symptom of a deeper problem that requires closer examination to get to the bottom of the situation and figure out how to address it.
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Photo: Paul Stein.