Seattle CHOP Protesters Want Police to Be Completely Disarmed—Including Batons and Shields

Protesters who have taken over several blocks of Seattle, dubbing the area the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP), are calling for an immediate disarmament of police—and ultimately for the Seattle Police Department to be completely dismantled.

In a list of demands, protesters, who initially called the area the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ),have called on city leaders to "defund and abolish" the Seattle Police Department, as well as the city's criminal justice system as a whole.

Calls to defund the police have grown across the country following the death of George Floyd on May 25. The 46-year-old African American man died after a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds while arresting him on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 note.

However, Seattle protesters have called for armed force to be "banned entirely," during what they call the "transitionary period between now and the dismantlement of the Seattle Police Department."

"No guns, no batons, no riot shields, no chemical weapons, especially against those exercising their First Amendment right as Americans to protest," they have said.

Total disarmament would be a step further than countries such as Britain, Iceland, Norway and New Zealand, where police do not commonly carry firearms. They are typically equipped, however, with batons. In some cases, officers may also be equipped with tasers and pepper spray.

In England and Wales, officers generally do not carry firearms, though police did ramp up armed patrols in London in the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks.

The difference in the number of fatal shootings by police in England and Wales and the United States, is stark. In England and Wales, government data compiled by Statista shows that between the years 2004 and 2019, a total of 40 fatal shootings by police were documented.

Meanwhile, since 2015, police in the U.S. have fatally shot around 1,000 people each year, according to a database maintained by The Washington Post. In 2018, there were 996 documented fatal police shootings, while in 2019 the number increased to 1,004.

According to Statista, the rate of fatal police shootings among black people in the U.S. was much higher than among any other ethnicity, at 30 fatal shootings per million of the population as of June 2020.

One clear argument for why standards in Britain differ from those in the U.S., is that police in Britain are far less likely to encounter situations with armed suspects or citizens, due to the country's strict gun laws.

In Iceland, however, gun ownership is significantly higher than in Britain, yet police are still, for the most part, unarmed.

According to the GunPolicy.org database, there were an estimated 31.7 firearms per 100 people in Iceland in 2017. Meanwhile, in Britain, there were about five firearms per 100 people.

However, despite Iceland's higher levels of gun ownership, the country has only seen one fatal shooting by police, in 2013, since it became an independent republic in 1944.

In recent years, advocates for disarming police in the U.S. have looked to Britain, Iceland and other countries for guidance on a new way forward. However, Prof. Martin Innes, the director of both Cardiff University's Crime and Security Research Institute and the university's Police Science Institute, told Newsweek that it is difficult to draw any realistic conclusions by comparing the U.S. to other nations.

The growing debate around disarming and eventually defunding and abolishing the police, is a "complex one," he said.

"I think it's very difficult to draw comparisons and say that we could infer that something would happen as it has in other countries," he said. "I'm not aware of anything similar having been done in the past in terms of [disarmament] happening in the context of quite high gun ownership, so I think it's quite difficult to extrapolate from experiences in the U.K., where we've kind of had a tradition of unarmed policing."

Further, Innes said, "even if you were going to implement it in Seattle or in the U.S., you're trying to do it in the context of very high social tensions and it wouldn't take much to go wrong and upset and destabilize the whole process, in my opinion."

Allowing U.S. residents to be armed, while barring police from access to arms, he suggested, could also lead to "significant power imbalances," which could effectively lead to more violence, including the possibility of what he referred to as "revenge violence."

Innes said he is "absolutely with folks in terms of thinking that...the best way to police is through interaction and persuasion, but at some point, the point of having a police service is to be able to apply coercive power to people who don't want to be controlled and there are limits to what you can achieve."

He believes that as long as gun laws stay the same in the U.S., there may be a need for some type of law enforcement and if law enforcement does exist, there may need to be some level of access to firearms.

One possibility, he suggested, could be severely restricting officers' access to firearms and ensuring that those who do have access are forced to go through a higher level of training and face strict regulations.

"The officers who do carry firearms in the U.K. are trained to a very, very high level in their use," Innes said. "They go through far higher levels of training than what happens in the U.S., where everybody is kind of armed."

According to FBI data, of the 48 police officers killed in 2019 in the line of duty, only 10 were able to fire their weapons at assailants, while six officers attempted to fire their weapons.

In the past, such data has been used to support the argument that access to firearms does not necessarily save officers' lives. But Innes said it would be dangerous to draw any conclusions on whether that means officers would not be put at greater risk if they were stripped of their firearms.

"One of the things you can never measure is prevention," he said. "You're not counting that there are cases where officers, because they had a firearm, were able to do what they needed and where there was no resistance from a suspect. It also doesn't cover occasions where they used their firearms without discharging them to proactively manage the situation." The data also does not show whether having police officers armed is a deterrent against violence against police officers in and of itself.

In Vermont, a relatively similar debate around disarming police played out just last year after Burlington City Councilor Perri Freeman said she wanted to look into whether it would be possible for the city to implement lower levels of armed force that other countries around the world have.

The idea drew swift backlash across party lines, as well as from police, with Burlington Chief of Police Brandon del Pozo telling The Burlington Free Press in December: "Disarming any of Burlington's police officers would put the public in great danger by rendering officers unable to safely respond to violent incidents such as shootings, stabbings and robberies."

Seeking to shut down comparisons between the U.S. and countries like Iceland, del Pozo said: "Iceland is an island with little or no illegal gun trafficking, assault weapons are effectively banned there, and procuring a handgun is a multi-year process." Meanwhile, he said, "here in Vermont, people can buy nearly any type of gun in minutes, and carry it concealed without a license."

Now, just months later, calls not only to disarm the police, but to defund and abolish law enforcement completely, have grown across the U.S.

Paul Hirschfield, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University, said ultimately, he believes "American police are more likely to take a life with their immediately accessible guns than to save a life." However, he said, "minimizing overall harm is not the overarching principle of policing."

Advocates of defunding police say it means redirecting law enforcement funds to community-serving initiatives like education and health care. Hirschfield agrees that police should not be tasked with responding to all conflicts and crises in U.S. society.

"I think we already ask too much of some of our officers. Especially in our cities, we essentially expect them to do the work that our mental health, drug treatment, supportive housing, and educational systems fail to do," he said. "To the extent that we can strengthen our social safety net, we can reduce the number of volatile situations in which people are compelled to call the police."

"This would greatly reduce the stress and risk that officers face on the job. But unless that happens, I think disarming them would impose more stress and more risk than most officers are willing to accept," Hirschfield said. "That is why a broad disarming of the police seems like a non-starter in any major U.S. city."

"A more realistic approach is to delegate more tasks like school security, routine traffic enforcement, and wellness calls to someone other than armed police," he said.

Innes thinks policing in the U.S. can be reformed, but he remains skeptical about whether total abolition is feasible. In the U.S., he believes the solution could lie somewhere in the middle, with a "soft power" approach to policing. But right now, he said, "the temperature of the debate" may be too high to find that middle ground.

Seattle
An image of activist Angela Davis is displayed above the entrance to the Seattle Police Department's East Precinct, vacated June 8, and now surrounded by streets reopened to pedestrians forming an area named the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in Seattle, Washington on June 12, 2020. JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty