Earlier this year my family and I had a chance to travel the world. I had just received a generous advance for my first book, all of our kids were being homeschooled, and the lease was up on our Southern California home. As a family we had crossed the Texas border into Mexico one time, but we had never actually used our passports before. We saw the opportunity to escape the American bubble for an extended trip as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the six of us. What we saw in London and Paris and throughout South Africa during our months abroad was postcard-worthy, but now that we’re back in the states, one thing has stuck with me: For good reason, people view our country like it’s the wild, wild west—and our police are front and center in this popular opinion.
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I had always heard that police in London, by and large, don’t carry guns. Except for the police we saw at Heathrow Airport, we actually couldn’t find a police officer with a gun in London. I looked. The kids looked. Even when we were near famed locations like Buckingham Palace or the British Museum or the London Eye, we just couldn’t spot a single officer with a gun. Our first inclination, fully Americanized to equate guns with protection, was to wonder just how safe we were since none of the officers had firearms, but that feeling soon wore off and we went from feeling weird about not seeing any armed officers to feeling a sense of relief.
It’s not that everywhere my family travels we actively think we are targets to be shot and killed by a police officer, but we, like most black families, have grown sadly accustomed to the near daily news story of another black man or woman being gunned down by the police. In what can only be described as a reality in black America that is widely shared but rarely discussed—police scare the shit out of the most law-abiding black folk you’ve ever met. Being pulled over by the police for a routine traffic violation might get you beat down, or sent to prison on some trumped-up charges like Marcus Jeter in New Jersey, or even killed. It is a sad, running joke throughout black America, backed up by semi-hilarious videos, that white folk can yell in the faces of officers when they are angry, but black folk would be shot on the spot in any such instance.
This reality, when my wife and I shared it with black Londoners, just shocked them. They have their own beefs and concerns with police, but this idea of trembling in fear when pulled over for going 65 mph in a 55-mph zone was just foreign to them. In fact, after visiting the United States for the very first time in 2012, my wife’s hairstylist in London, Teresa, said she felt so unsafe she wasn't looking forward to going back.
"I was scared to death," Teresa told us. "My entire life I’ve wanted to visit New York City and the week we were there on holiday from London, at least six people were murdered, including a teenager who was gunned down by police in his own home."
The United Kingdom, like the United States, has its own deep history of violence. I won’t use this space to teach a history lesson and I only lift it up because anytime I mention how much I believe the United States can improve its modern issues of violence, people are quick to reference our deeply violent past as being too big a hurdle for us to overcome.
Very few articles detail just how outrageous the gap is in cases of police violence between the United Kingdom and the United States as well as this one, entitled "Trigger Happy," in The Economist.
In what at first reads like fiction to the American mind, the article details how officers in all of London and Wales, had only fired their guns four times in the entirety of the past two years—and in those four instances, not one single person was killed!
Even without considering the fact that the FBI publicly admits
it doesn't have a reliable account of how many people are killed by police in the United States, and that the real number is likely much more than the 400-plus they estimate, the numbers are staggering. The Economist
Even after adjusting for the smaller size of Britain’s population, British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans. Between 2010 and 2014 the police force of one small American city, Albuquerque in New Mexico, shot and killed 23 civilians; seven times more than the number of Brits killed by all of England and Wales’s 43 forces during the same period.
The reality that more young black men were shot and killed by police in the small area of metropolitan St. Louis in the past two months than in all of England and Wales (which has 80 times the population) in the past two years is just outrageous. It's not to say that the solution is simple, but it is absolutely unacceptable for the United States to have problems at this level when our closest peer nation has nothing of the sort.
It's not good enough to say, in the face of so much senseless violence, that "Americans love guns." That's not a solution, it's a platitude. Have we lost our will, as a nation, to tackle tough problems? I just don't think so. While middle ground may be difficult, I'm sure we can do so much better than this.