Disarming the police is urgent. Not only would it address thousands of police shootings every year, getting rid of guns goes to the very heart of police conflict and poor relationships with communities of color.

As Mitchell Duneier (1999), Peter Moskos (2009) and others have observed, police interactions in low-income communities revolve around issues of respect. Police demand respect, civilians resent disrespect, and interactions become confrontations that escalate into mistreatment, abuse, and violence.

In one documentary  of stop and frisk, the audio captured during the stop of an innocent pedestrian illustrates how the police create more hostile situations. After the police asked a young man questions, they immediately shouted, “Shut your fucking mouth!” when he tried to respond. Guns give police the boldness to escalate an interaction towards violence—“You want me to smack you?”; “Who the fuck you think you’re talking to?”; “I am gonna fucking break your arm, then I’m gonna punch you in the fucking face”—because they know they can always draw their gun as a last resort.

The common argument against disarmament is that police need guns. But for what? Most police never use them. Even in the higher-crime 1990s, nearly 95% of New York City officers had never fired their weapon in the line of duty (Rostker et al. 1998). 

What police do day to day—patrolling neighborhoods, substituting for an inadequate mental health system, conducting traffic stops, calming disputes, and filling out paperwork—not only doesn’t need a gun, but is safer done without one.

Take traffic stops. Currently, they can be high-risk, mutually stressful events, civilians and police each fearing the other is armed and will fire in an instant. If the police had no guns, the most lawless driver in a stolen car might… drive away, and the officer would already have reported the license plate number.

Disarming police would also change interactions with mentally ill people. A Portland Press Herald investigation  found half of police-shooting victims had mental health problems. In 2014, at least 14  mentally ill people were shot by police, often after parents or other caretakers called seeking help, not lethal force.

As Nevada journalist and editor D. Brian Burghart concluded after a two-year effort to catalog all police shootings  nationwide, “You know who dies in the most population-dense areas? Black men. You know who dies in the least population-dense areas? Mentally ill men” (Burghart 2014).

Scores of city workers perform police work without guns. Parks police write citations, often unarmed. Campus police patiently keep the peace over thousands of often drunk and rowdy college students without guns (probably because most universities want to avoid the consequences of the contentious situations that guns foster). What about venturing into a building to find evidence of wrongdoing? Building inspectors do it every day with no more than a flashlight. Paramedics and firefighters go uninvited into houses, melees, protests. Token clerks, bus drivers, and social workers enforce rules, drive through dangerous neighborhoods, and assist and report on psychologically unstable people, all with no guns.

They’re not weak

At least in New York City, a few guns at the precinct house would be only a few minutes from the rare armed threat, much as patrolling officers typically are. In remote areas, citizens would be better off if guns were in the trunk rather than on officers’ utility belt.

Don’t be a fucking hero

In Norway, for example, officers must obtain permission before removing their guns from their cars. This “Norwegian delay” has been credited with lower levels of shootings; It led armed forces in neighboring Denmark to organize “stop and think” training that encourages officers to withdraw from a conflict, secure the scene, regroup, and confer with other officers before seeking to resolve a dangerous situation (Hendy 2014, pp. 186–187).

Efforts to reform police behavior fall short by design however if they don’t fundamentally change the power dynamic between police and people who are most intensively policed. “Community policing tends to turn all neighborhood problems into police problems,”

The British practice what researchers call “policing by consent” (Tilley 2008). Could today’s cops do their jobs like all other civil servants do, on the basis of respect for their position, not their sidearm?

Most cops could do their jobs better freed from the weapon that is a barrier between themselves and the people they are to protect.

What’s more surprising is what we forget when people say that the police need guns because they do a dangerous job: it’s more dangerous because of their guns. 

Surveys of police who are unarmed find that their concerns include not only danger to civilians, but the psychological harm done to police who fire weapons, and a belief that arming police makes officers’ jobs more dangerous (Squires and Kennison 2010). Thirty police were killed in the US in 2014, while a police officer was last killed in Great Britain in 2012. Even accounting for the UK’s smaller size, a dozen cops would have died on the job in that time if they faced the rates of American police “protected” by their weapons.

Disarming police is a moderate path. Some groups in heavily policed neighborhoods are already calling for the more radical measure of expulsion of the police from their neighborhoods. At a large Take Back the Bronx rally  in 2012, the group argued that their communities were occupied much like a military zone. To a roaring crowd, one young woman said, “We organized our block not for reform! We don’t want no motherfucking nicer cops, we want to get rid of the motherfucking NYPD! So take back the ’hood, and take back the Bronx!”

While criminologist and former parole officer Paul Takagi (1974) called for police disarmament as early as 1974, abolition also has long, respectable roots. Journalist Mychal Denzel Smith (2015) makes a case for eliminating the police, echoing the arguments of Malcolm X and James Baldwin, who said that “the police are simply the hired enemies of this population.” 

When people ask Smith, “Who is going to protect us?”, he asks “Who protects us now?” arguing that, in Black neighborhoods, the police are a source of danger, not safety, and therefore are not called on for protection. Disarmament and abolition are both strategies to direct efforts and resources towards reducing inequality and therefore violence, rather than increasing the policing of disadvantaged communities.

Some opponents to disarmament argue that it works in more social-democratic countries because a strong social safety net means there is little poverty and hence less crime. Exactly: a heavily armed police force allows a society to impoverish a segment of its citizens and still keep them in place.

A society without an armed police force must move towards addressing poverty, discrimination, and social inequality peacefully, not reinforce it violently.

If we don’t need guns, what are they for? On the front line of law and order’s replacement for Jim Crow, armed police patrol African-American neighborhoods as a reminder of the deadly consequences of stepping out of line. Guns are there to discipline Black men into following a racist social order.

The protests on the streets of Baltimore , New York, Ferguson, Oakland, and beyond have been demands that we treat everyone as a citizen, not a suspect. Disarming the police is not only a step towards safer communities and safer environments for police, it’s an important goal for progress in civil rights, the rule of law, and the creation of a fully prosperous, truly democratic society.