One night three years ago, I arranged to meet a ride at a checkpoint in downtown Tripoli. When I got there, two young militiamen stood guard. Each held a battered example of the Russian Kalashnikov assault rifle, aiming them down, at the city’s dirt sidewalk. A third militiaman slumped in a broken chair with his rifle hung sideways, around his neck, as you would a camera. The gun pointed at the rest of us. I moved out of the way.
When my ride appeared, the seated guard stood. His gun was now level with his companions’ bellies. Everyone told the idiot to be careful. Sheepishly, the man angled the gun down, and when he did it went off with a shocking crack. The bullet missed his foot by eight inches. It missed the other two militiaman by a couple of feet or so. Luckily, the bullet sailed away from a busy road and toward a cement wall. No one got hurt.
I hadn’t thought about that incident until last week, when I watched that now widely-seen video of a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The officer was aiming an assault rifle at protesters, screaming and threatening to kill them. Though placed on leave, he wasn’t the only law enforcement agent photographed leveling a rifle at someone in Ferguson this month.
A lot has been said — particularly by trained soldiers, often on social media — about whether the police should have such military hardware at all. With that debate growing, President Obama called a press conference over the weekend (when presidents tend to say things they don’t want to draw too much attention to) and ordered a review of military gear used in domestic police departments, including whether police are effectively trained how to wield these weapons. After hearing from the President and thinking about that moment in Libya, my question is this: With all of these new high-powered weapons in the hands of an undertrained police force, how high are the odds that one of these guns, sooner than later, will just go off?
Higher than you’d think, it turns out. Consider the most rigorously-trained Americans to use these high-powered weapons: soldiers. According to Pentagon statistics, at least 90 U.S. servicemen and women died from what the military calls “negligent discharges” between 2003 and 2011. Suicides and friendly-fire incidents are not included (if they were, that number would be vastly higher).
As for the police forces around the country, weirdly, similar statistics on injuries and deaths from handguns don’t exist at all. At least not on the federal level, and not in Missouri. Unlike the federally-overseen U.S. military, our state and local police do not operate under any blanket requirement to report when weapons are fired, and under what circumstances. “How many times was a firearm used? There’s no capture of records,” said a spokeswoman from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives speaking on background. “I should hope that every individual department is [keeping a record of] that.”
A spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, Mike O’Connell, said he was not aware of any state regulations that standardized training standards for police tactical units in Missouri, or any collection of statistics on misfires of weapons. Looking for a police department that does keep records, I finally landed on New York City. Again, the stats on accidental shots aren’t encouraging. In 2012, NYPD officers collectively fired their guns 105 times, of which 21 shots were unintentional. (That’s 20 percent, or one out of five.) New York police fired their weapons intentionally amid “adversarial conflict” only about twice as often (45 times) as they did accidentally in 2012.
Of the 21 unintentional discharges in New York in 2012, one resulted in a death. It happened when a civilian fleeing a robbery collided with a responding officer, whose gun went off, killing the innocent person. We don’t know how many times accidents happened nationally. No one keeps track.
The new wrinkle with the inclusion of military-style weapons is the need for military-style training budgets, and military-style rules on their use, to go along with them. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening. “SWAT teams are high profile and always in the news, but there is no standard out there dictating training.” That’s Mark Lomax, who heads, as someone inevitably will, a lobby for SWAT teams, called the National Tactical Officers Association. Lomax, who is from Philadelphia, was a cop there for 27 years and ran the state police academy in Pennsylvania.
He said that officers who are cleared to use so-called “tactical” weapons, like assault rifles, typically train with those weapons only once or twice a month. Training from municipality to municipality can vary greatly based on local budgets. “Once you leave the academy, you have budgets, and everything else that impacts on training,” he says. “Operations [day-to-day operation of a police department] comes first. Training comes last.”
Besides the money, it’s easy to cut on training because, depending on the state, no one’s watching. “For reporting to the FBI on crime [arrests, types of crime, etc] there’s a federal requirement. But outside of that, there’s no federal requirement. There are no federal regulations.”
The military, of course, is made of regulations. Misfires, for example, typically called “negligent discharges,” are considered punishable offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. One soldier, writing in Foreign Policy in 2011, described a seemingly understandable mistake with a rifle on a base in Iraq; no one was injured, but the incident “pretty much ruined” his career.
The term itself, “negligent,” is revealing. About ten years ago, all branches of the U.S. military adopted “negligent” to replace “accidental” in descriptions of a gun going off unintentionally. Per the famous NRA slogan, the shift to negligence implied that if a gun went off, it was the soldier, not the piece of hardware, that had malfunctioned.
Which brings us back to Ferguson. The state of Missouri has no accepted standards, statewide, for training the kinds of cops to which it issues military-style hardware. It also doesn’t collect information on guns that go off because an officer made a mistake. The guns themselves were designed mainly for soldiers and officers who operate under federal rules, with extensive training and much more careful reporting of outcomes. We’ve taken those guns, moved them to the local level, and left the rest of the framework behind. Maybe that’s why a video of an American cop reminded me of an untrained, unmonitored, irregular militiaman who could have shot someone accidentally, possibly me, three years ago. Maybe that’s why the President had to admit that something is seriously wrong.
Read Matter’s continuing coverage of the Michael Brown shooting: