In the news today, a police officer tasered a blind man for walking down the street with a stick. Apparently the poor little copper was frightened by the victim’s white stick, and thought it was a samurai sword, so attacked him with a deadly weapon. The context behind this event was that the police had heard that apparently someone was wandering around with a samurai sword, which really doesn’t give the copper any excuse because the sticks used by blind people to navigate look exactly fuck all like a samurai sword.
Now this is hardly the first time a police officer has developed very questionable judgment of the nature of a threat: recall the case of Delroy Smellie, who beat the fuck out of a woman for waving a juice box. He told the court that he’d thought it was a weapon–a fucking juice box!–and was acquitted.
Obviously, I’m hardly going to rule out the parsimonious explanation that these cops are simply just lying bastards. However, even the nice cops will be susceptible to this effect, as once again science proves that all coppers are bastards (for those interested in more science about why the police differ from the non-porcine population, please read this overview).
A study conducted this year–unfortunately paywalled, but summarised here–found that when people are holding a weapon, they are more likely to think that others are holding weapons. They’re also more likely to get jumpy.
The participants in this study were given one of two objects to hold: a foam ball, or a toy gun. They were then shown people holding objects: sometimes neutral, like drink cans, but sometimes guns. Those who were holding toy guns were far more likely to classify the innocuous objects as guns. There was no effect if the toy gun was just near the participant, rather than in their hands.
Furthermore–and this bit is less clear in both the abstract of the study and the summary–participants were more likely to raise the toy gun in response to a perceived “threat”: again, remember this “threat” is nothing more than a drink can.
The researchers concluded that this effect is due to perceiving the environment in terms of intended action: by holding the gun, people switched into an “I intend to use this gun” frame of mind, and began to see the world differently and seeing people as threats.
Now think about how this applies to the police, a group who are typically armed as part of the job. They walk around with batons incredibly close to their hands, and are sometimes instructed to draw them as part of standard public order procedure. When even normal people suddenly start perceiving the world as being full of threats and weapons, is it really any surprise that the cops do routinely?
It’ll only get worse if Bernard Hogan-Howe gets his way; he wants to stick a taser in every police car, which will likely result in increasingly edgy and trigger-happy cops whizzing round London. I can’t say I’m comfortable with this.
There’s a decent explanation for police being trigger-happy, but this doesn’t make it right in the slightest. In fact, it’s an argument to move towards disarming the police force: keep the weapons hard to get hold of, and maybe they’ll stop harming innocents.
Thanks @gmartin for telling me about this study