The grainy film coverage of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin a few weeks ago was a hard watch for anyone. For those of us with police firearms experience, it was positively stomach churning.
Before we go on, a caveat. There is a lot we don’t know about this incident. We have one camera angle, we don’t know what preceded the shooting and we know little of the background of the unfortunate Mr Blake. It ill behoves us to add to the tangle of misinformation and propaganda.
But if it’s possible to set aside the toxic racial culture and the ludicrous proliferation of firearms in the US, the facts we have tell their own story, both tragic and predictable.
The original call to the police was to report a domestic dispute. Apparently there was already a warrant in existence for Mr Blake for a similar incident and that will have rung alarm bells. The vast majority of police officers shot or injured in the line of duty in the US are while they are attending just such domestic disputes – not gang shootouts or drug busts, but run-of-the mill “domestics”.
Accordingly, the police apparently attended the call in numbers, obviously expecting trouble. Such prophecies are often self-fulfilling.
What we saw in the brief film clip was a number of police officers following Mr Blake to the driver’s door of his car, apparently having unsuccessfully tried to detain him or render him compliant by non-lethal means. The fact that a number of officers and a powerful electric taser failed to subdue him may tell its own story. By then, the attempted arrest was in chaos, with guns drawn it is very difficult to de-escalate. In the final scene, we see one of the pursuing policemen grabbing wildly at Mr Blake as enters his car and, apparently believing he had a weapon, firing a volley of shots into Mr Blake’s back.
Excessive you may conclude but in fear and desperation it’s easy to fire multiple shots from a Glock 19. The fact that from point blank range several shots missed their target speaks volumes for the composure of the trigger finger.
Such incidents are still very much in the eye of the beholder. Some will have seen the shooting of Mr Blake as a racist attack, others as simple police brutality. What I saw was poor training, bad tactics and blind panic.
Tragically I suspect these same failings lie behind many police shootings in the US.
More than 30 years ago, I was privileged to attend the FBI academy at Quantico, Virginia. Along with 200 mainly American police officers, I received the best of training at the finest of facilities. But we were a mixed bunch: fellow students from big police departments were well-trained and equipped, many from the smaller outfits less so.
The US is sprinkled with a vast number of police and sheriff’s departments, many of which are tiny and run on a shoestring. Police chiefs come and go, hired and fired at the whim of local politicians. With such a patchy system, standards vary enormously, training and equipment can be poor.
At the FBI academy, firearms tactics training was obligatory and I still recall our chief instructor, a grizzled ex-Marine gunnery sergeant bawling at us: “You can teach a monkey to fire a gun. We are going to teach you how not to shoot.”
What a pity more US police officers didn’t benefit from his not-so-gentle advice. The plain fact is that while the policing system in the US is such a mishmash and there are so many deadly weapons in circulation, disasters like the shooting of Mr Blake are bound to happen. Time to reflect perhaps on how fortunate we are to live in a land where firearms are strictly controlled and armed police officers have been well trained – not to shoot.
Tom Wood is a writer and a former Deputy Chief Constable
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