Americans rely on the gun, the power to kill or injure, to preserve the social order in the most fraught and dire moments. Police know their weapon is by their side if the situation they encounter spins too far out of control and they find themselves threatened. Of course, the overwhelming majority of police interactions never go near this danger zone. A huge number of calls that come into 911 are complaints not of violent threats but of simple disorder: unruly people on the street, noise complaints of apartment parties where the music is too loud, interpersonal conflict that teeters on the edge of violence. While law enforcement likes to urge vigilance—“If you see something, say something”—sometimes, particularly in rapidly gentrifying areas, this ends up being a constant headache. “So I’m working last week and get dispatched to a call of ‘Suspicious Activity,’ ” reads a post on Reddit’s police message board, ProtectAndServe.
Ya’ll wanna know what the suspicious activity was? Someone walking around in the dark with a flashlight and crowbar? Nope. Someone walking into a bank with a full face mask on? Nope. It was two black males who were jump-starting a car at 9:30 in the morning. That was it. Nothing else. Someone called it in.
In the course of the last few years, I’ve had dozens and dozens of conversations with cops, and what always strikes me is that, for all the training and procedures that accompany being a member of a police force, each police officer has a shocking amount of latitude in any given situation. When I read the above passage, I felt relief that the cop who answered the call to find two guys jump-starting their car had the good sense not to harass them. But who knows what another cop would’ve done?
That autonomy at the street level is both an essential part of policing and the source of what so many people in Ferguson and Baltimore and Cleveland and countless other places find so maddening and humiliating (and dangerous). From the cops’ perspective, anything can happen in any interaction—they need the latitude to manage and control whatever they encounter. But for, say, two young black men trying to jump a car that won’t start—no doubt frustrated and late for work—the arrival of a police officer is the arrival of a government agent who may be in a beneficent mood or a vengeful one. In the moment of his appearance, they go from sovereign to second-class citizens.
To better understand how cops learn how to wield this authority, I arranged a trip to Morris County, New Jersey, and the Public Safety Training Academy, to spend the morning in a state-of-the-art virtual-reality simulator, which the office uses to train new recruits and current officers. I wanted to experience firsthand how police are taught to navigate the irreducible uncertainty of being out on the street.
I stood in the center of a dark, circular room almost entirely surrounded by screens. I was outfitted with a receptor on my chest that could receive gunshots fired by actors playing roles on the screens in front of me. If I was hit, I would feel a shock. I had a 9mm handgun that had been converted to fire an infrared signal at the simulator screens but retained its original action and noise.
At the controls behind me stood Paul Carifi Jr., a bald and jacked 49-year-old white man with the compact intensity of a human bulldog. Carifi has been overseeing training for years. I could not conjure in my mind anyone who was more of a cop’s cop. Later I would learn that he’s also a Republican member of the Parsippany Township Council.
On the computer system he can pull up any one of 85 different scenarios and then manipulate it in real time as I interact with the virtual scene all around me. There are actors on a video screen who speak to me and appear to respond to my commands. (Though, really, it’s Carifi who is doing the responding, making dynamic selections from a menu available on the computer.) Each scenario begins with a call from dispatch giving me some cursory information about what I’m being summoned to. Then, a few moments later, I’m confronting the scene alone.
“So you want to maintain control, some semblance of order,” Carifi told me before I started. “You want [your suspects] to stay in one spot. You want their hands out where you can see their hands. You don’t want people moving around, sticking their hands in their pockets, in their jackets, because now you don’t know what they’re grabbing for . . . You want to be able to maintain a calmness, so when you’re talking to people you’re not getting them upset, getting them riled up. And if they are, you want to calm them down.”
Lt. Sekou Millington of the Oakland, California, police department confronts a scenario—and aims his taser, 2015 - By Jim Wilson/The New York Times/Redux.
The first scene I happen upon is a white man, probably in his late 50s, standing in the back of a pickup truck, throwing junk from his flatbed into an empty lot. He’s not hurting anyone. There’s no one else around, but what he’s doing is a clear violation of the law, and I have to get him to stop. I don’t know what law he’s violating, and I have a sneaking suspicion that a rookie cop might not, either. I summon my best commanding voice and ask the man on-screen before me what he’s doing.
He says, “Great. I knew someone was gonna call you guys.”
“Yeah, uh, what are you up to here?”
“Why you gotta give me a hard time?”
“Well, this is not a dumping ground.” I don’t actually know if that’s true. But would a real cop in my position who’d just showed up know the ins and outs of dumping laws?
“This is my friend’s lot—I can dump here.”
Again: Maybe true! Who knows? I press on. “Uh, no, I’m going to have to ask you to pack up your stuff and go.”
“My friend owns this property.”
“You got any proof?”
“Shut up, you dumb-ass.”
I freeze for a moment. Obviously, I can’t let this dude call me a dumb-ass and tell me to shut up. But what exactly is my recourse? I mean, I suppose I could try to slap some cuffs on him for disorderly conduct or resisting arrest.
Instead I say, “Uh.”
“Relax, man, it’s only a little fucking concrete. It ain’t gonna kill ya.” He holds a cinder block in his hands.
“O.K., can you drop that, please, for me?” I attempt to affect a voice of authority, even though I’m asking a question. Which I probably shouldn’t do. And then, just to make sure he understands which precise implement I’m asking him to drop, I add, “That concrete block.”
“You want me to put the block down?”
“Yeah. Yes, sir.”
“Put the block down. Yeah, I’ll put the block down.” At which point he raises the cinder block above his head as if to throw it at me. I respond by drawing my weapon and aiming at him, and the simulation ends.
Carifi asks me if I was right to draw my weapon, and the obvious, embarrassing answer is: No, of course not. The man is far enough away that he can’t really hit me with a cinder block. This delights Carifi. We’re only one scene in, and already the self-righteous liberal pundit has drawn his weapon on an unarmed man holding a cinder block.
“I probably didn’t need to go to my gun,” I say, somewhat sheepishly.
“You don’t. You see that especially with some of our newer trainees. They want to go to the gun right away.” For Carifi, and the good folks of New Jersey law enforcement and beyond, this is already mission accomplished. Police officers dislike being second-guessed by politicians, activists, and journalists who have never had to do a police officer’s job, and in this context, the exercise is designed to beat some humility into loudmouthed pundits like me. See: not so easy, right?
We continued through a cycle of scenarios: a pimp yelling at and verbally threatening a sex worker who seemed strung out. The pimp tells me to scram, and when I hold my ground he takes off. I stay behind to help the sex worker, who briefly threatens to stab me with a hypodermic needle, but I don’t take the bait this time. My weapon stays holstered and she ultimately puts the syringe down. Later, I confront a group of kids who look stoned out of their gourds blasting metal in a car in the parking lot of a mall; a couple whose neighbors have called in a noise complaint over music pounding from a garage; and a chaotic scene at a suburban home in a subdivision, in which a man’s ex-girlfriend has parked her S.U.V. in front of his driveway. She’s yelling at him and refusing to let him and his new girlfriend leave.
I do my best through all of them but keep going back to ask how much training I would want to have to feel prepared to intervene confidently and appropriately in some of the situations I encounter in the simulator. I imagine cops have to mediate between exes having loud confrontations all the time, and I also imagine that someone with, say, years of conflict-resolution and psychological training would have a pretty clear road map for how to best resolve a situation like that without having to make an arrest, use pepper spray, or, God forbid, unholster a weapon.
“There’s an old saying,” retired N.Y.P.D. cop turned author Steve Osborne once told me, “that in police work a cop’s mouth is his greatest weapon. To go into a chaotic situation where everybody is yelling and screaming—sometimes there’s alcohol, there’s drugs involved—to be able to talk everybody down: when you see a real experienced cop do that, it’s a magical thing.”
True as that may be, the fact is that most cops are going to encounter these scenarios with little more training than I had—and I talk for a living. The typical cadet training involves 60 hours spent on how to use a gun, 51 hours on defensive tactics, and just eight hours on how to calm difficult situations without force.
It made me think of the stories I’d heard from soldiers about the high-water mark of counterinsurgency in Iraq, when General David Petraeus, to much acclaim, took over the mission and attempted to orient America’s occupying soldiers toward cultivating local political alliances and building the new state’s governing capacity. Readers of U.S. news outlets were treated to an endless stream of photos of camo-clad soldiers sitting on rugs with Iraqi men drinking tea and listening to them air their grievances. Some of the soldiers I’ve spoken to enjoyed this work, believed in it deeply, and felt that they excelled at it. Others felt the whole thing was ridiculous. But the brute fact remains: soldiers aren’t judges or mayors or bureaucrats who have the experience, language skills, or basic relationships of kin and country to be able to navigate the extremely fraught local politics of a place they’ve never set foot in until their deployment.
Sure, there were many incredibly talented, humane, creative American troops who managed to improvise, listen, and learn, and play some kind of constructive role in the area to which they were assigned. But there was a fundamental mismatch between what the military as an institution is created and trained to do and what this military in this moment was being asked to do. The military exists to use violence and destroy enemies. That is its essence. There are many things it can do that aren’t that (build dams, deliver relief, develop technology), but to ask 20-year-olds in the midst of a war zone to play cultural ambassador underneath 50 pounds of gear in 110-degree heat while not speaking the language is, well, a stretch.
And as I navigated scenario after scenario in the training room, I understood that many cops must feel themselves to be in a similar situation. We ask police to be social workers, addiction counselors, mental-health workers, and community mediators. We wouldn’t hand a social worker a gun and have him or her go out into the streets to apprehend criminals. But we do the opposite every day.
Author Chris Hayes enveloped by the simulator at the Public Safety Training Academy, in Morris County, New Jersey - Courtesy of Chris Hayes/MSNBC.
So what happens when police officers are called upon to handle a volatile person in the midst of terrible psychological torment? It occurs all the time in America, and there are many police officers who, whether through good luck or accrued wisdom or basic empathy, handle it with grace. But there are many who don’t. Or who handle it in ways that are even worse. In March 2015, when a maintenance worker in an apartment complex in the Atlanta suburbs saw 27-year-old air-force veteran Anthony Hill naked, alternately banging on neighbors’ doors and crawling on the ground, he responded the way many, maybe most, of us would have: he called the cops. What else do you do? This was precisely the type of disorder we look to the cops to resolve.
The police arrived, and within 10 minutes Hill had been shot dead. He was unarmed and, his family says, suffering from P.T.S.D. after a deployment to Afghanistan. He also had bipolar disorder. The officer who shot him claimed Hill had charged him, and he was convinced Hill was on some drug that would’ve rendered a Taser useless. That officer was charged with murder. He pleaded not guilty.
But take a second and ask yourself why this was something for the police to handle to begin with. “If a mental-health unit with paramedics, nurses, or even doctors had been sent to help Anthony, instead of an officer with a gun, he would still be alive today,” a local activist named Asia Parks told the news site Think Progress. “Mental illness should not be the reason a person is condemned to death or prison.” According to statistics compiled byThe Washington Post, in 2015 a full quarter of those shot and killed by police were people suffering from mental illness.
None of my virtual scenarios on the screens in New Jersey involved people who seemed to be suffering from mental illness, although I was hardly in a position to make that determination. How would I know unless I had been trained to spot it? There was one simulation that stuck out the most, probably because it ended with me getting shot.
I had showed up in response to a complaint that a man was revving the engine of his motorcycle in his backyard. I stood in the driveway, looking into the garage, where the man and his wife alternated between arguing with each other and cursing at me. (When I had arrived to ask about the noise, the man responded, “Are you kidding me? Are you fucking kidding me! Again?!”) I tried to control the situation, but after maybe 30 seconds of this kind of back-and-forth, the man and the woman started arguing more strenuously. Then the man grabbed a shotgun off a rack in the garage and shot me. I was hit before I had even reached for my gun. I managed to get to my sidearm and fire wildly, but it was pretty clear by that point that I was (virtually) dead.
Carifi approached me and asked me how many people were in the scenario. I said two, the man and woman arguing. But I had managed to entirely miss a third man, who’d entered the scene and been the one to pick up the shotgun. Worse: Carifi noted that the screen had marked where I had returned fire, a constellation of misses that hadn’t come close to the man actually trying to kill me.
“Your shots were all over the place. The scenario ended at this point because he got off multiple shots with his shotgun. Most likely, you’re . . . ”
“Toast,” I said.
“In trouble,” Carifi replied diplomatically.
“Now, on this particular scenario,” he went on, “this might happen 100,000 times: the people will listen to you, and it will end calmly. But it’s that one out of every 100,000, 200,000 calls that this happens.”
And there’s the nub of it. Let’s imagine watching two men argue loudly in the middle of a street. It’s tense and uncomfortable. You might call the cops in hopes of making sure it doesn’t escalate. This isn’t an everyday occurrence (though I imagine it depends on where you live), but it’s routine enough that it presents no great crisis. I’ve witnessed such a scene in numerous countries, particularly in Italy, where loud, demonstrative arguments on the street happen as a matter of course. In that context, no one much bats an eye, or, unless punches start being thrown, calls the cops. People argue loudly sometimes! That is not the case in the U.S., where loud public arguments—indeed, any displays of disorderliness—often carry more than a wisp of genuine danger, because you never know if the hothead who cut you off in traffic, or the drunk in the booth next to you at the bar, might be packing. In his years as a New York City cop and a supervisor, Steve Osborne told me, “I was involved in literally thousands of arrests. And everything goes smooth, everything goes smooth, it goes smooth. For me, it was when I least expected it. I had little to no warning. You go to ring the guy’s doorbell. There was some Wall Street guy—I went to go lock him up. He answered the door with a gun and a vest on. Stopped two guys in the street just to question them. The guy pulls out a gun for me, and the next thing I know I’m in a fight for my life. So you always have to be prepared.”
Policing in an environment awash in guns is fundamentally different from policing in one that isn’t. In each interaction in the simulator, I wondered when the gun would appear, when I’d find myself reaching for my holster. Obviously, that fear of the ever-present gun is exaggerated by the training environment and the desire to expose me to as much “action” as possible, but in a conversation with former cops afterward, they all said the threat of the gun weighs heavily.
This threat, the threat of the sudden bullet, extends to every single aspect of policing. Danish and Japanese police, I’m sure, are summoned to noise complaints all the time, but they arrive at the site of the complaint without harboring the nagging fear that the interaction will end in gunfire. There simply aren’t very many guns in Japan or Denmark. And as rare as it is in the U.S. for someone during a noise complaint to randomly grab a shotgun and start firing, as happened in my simulation, it’s a possibility one must train for.
The Second Amendment, its most strenuous defenders like to tell us, is the ultimate check against tyranny. (This despite the fact that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world.) The argument is that an armed populace keeps oppression at bay, but its practical effect has been the opposite. If the people are always armed enough to threaten the state’s control, then the state’s monopoly on violence is forever in question and the state therefore acts more often than not as if it were putting down an insurrection as opposed to enforcing the law. American society has witnessed a kind of arms race between its citizens and law enforcement resulting in a police force that in many places patrols and occupies rather than polices, that quite straightforwardly views itself as waging war—subduing an armed populace with ever-greater arms.