Armed response

IN this week’s THINKING ALLOWED, Chook journo DAVID BELL argues that arming more Perth police with AR-15 rifles will make them more violent, and is another step towards militarisation. It follows outrage in the US after a SWAT team member was acquitted of murdering an unarmed man.

• Top left: The AR-15 variant rifle Arizona police officer Philip Brailsford used to shoot an unarmed man who was begging for his life. The inside of the dust cover is engraved with the words “YOU’RE FUCKED”.
• Top right: Daniel Shaver, still alive, and his two kids.
• Lower right: Daniel Shaver, dead after being shot five times, and the officer who shot him and was found not guilty.

RECENTLY, new WA policecommissioner Chris Dawson announced 100 more Perth police would be armed with AR-15 rifles to be kept in their vehicles, after long-standing calls from police union president George Tilbury to equip more officers with the US-designed rifles.

It’s the same model of gun US police used to kill an unarmed man in Arizona in 2016, and it’s another step down the US path of militarising our police service.

If the stats from other countries hold true, militarising police forces will lead to them becoming more violent.

The bodycam footage of Arizona officer Philip Brailsford shooting Daniel Shaver is easily found online if you want to watch another police shooting.

Shaver was drinking in his hotel room with two colleagues, showing them an air-powered pellet gun he used for his pest-control job. Someone called police saying they’d seen the gun pointed outside his hotel window.


Police show up (as they should—no one knows it’s a pellet gun yet), and start yelling orders at an unarmed Shaver at riflepoint. The orders are confusing, contradictory, and the officers keep telling him that if he makes a mistake they’ll shoot him. Drunk, terrified and sobbing, he begs them not to kill him.

They order him to crawl towards them on his knees. His shorts start falling down, and for half a second he reaches down to pull them up. Officer Brailsford thinks he’s reaching for a gun and shoots Shaver with an AR-15 rifle five times, with entry wounds spanning his face to his knee.

Brailford’s gun was custom-engraved with the words “YOU’RE FUCKED,” concealed on the inside of the dust cover, which flips open when the charging handle is pulled to chamber a round and ready the rifle to shoot. The jury wasn’t allowed to be told about the engraving. He was found not guilty.

George Tilbury says more Perth police need to be armed with this model of rifle, because with their current handguns they would be “sitting ducks” in the event of a Las Vegas-style shooting spree. But the police who’ve shown need for these rifles already have them: they’re currently given to regional cops (who might need the extra range when operating in open country), and our specialist Tactical Response Group (the people who train to deal with a spree-shooters. If we actually have one in WA one day).

Just because a cop in another country shot someone with an AR-15 doesn’t mean it’ll happen here. But there’s an old saying that “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” and when it comes to militarising a police force, the evidence backs up the adage. The more police are given military equipment, the more they will use it, and the more civilians will die. In a broad study looking at statistics from 42 counties, the Washington Post published its findings in June this year:

“Even controlling for other possible factors in police violence, more-militarized law enforcement agencies were associated with more civilians killed each year by police. When a county goes from receiving no military equipment to $2,539,767 worth (the largest figure that went to one agency in our data), more than twice as many civilians are likely to die in that county the following year.”

When tasers were introduced to police, we were sold the line that they were to keep us safer, that tasers would be used as an alternative to firearms in situations where a violent person might otherwise just get shot.

Tasers have been used as a torture implement to shock a violent but unarmed prisoner 41 times, and they’ve been used to “subdue” two UWA academics who tried to help some drunk men who fell into a garden bed at Fremantle’s Esplanade Hotel.

Tasers have probably been a good thing overall and have probably saved lives and most usages might be justified. But tasers also show that if you hand people a tool, they will use it, sometimes unjustly, and more often than is necessary.

Officers wore blue in 1829 when the Metropolitan Police was established in London, as it was important to distinguish police officers from soldiers, who wore red at the time. They weren’t supposed to be seen as an occupying force. The psychology of their appearance, in distinguishing them from the military, was recognised as important even back then.

And it helps police to do their job if their outfit and loadout sends the message “I’m here to help, you can talk to me” and not “you are living under the rule of an occupying paramilitary force, follow my every command to the letter, and if you make a mistake, You’re Fucked.”

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