The motto of the San Francisco Police Department is “Oro en Paz, Fierro en Guerra,” translating to “Gold in Peace, Iron in War,” signifying that in times of peace, the police are public servants, “shining brilliantly as members of the communities we serve,” and in wartimes, able defenders “putting others’ well-being above our own,” as described by The City’s Police Commission.
But have we become a society of “Fierro en Paz, Fierro en Guerra”? It is the case that the SFPD, like most police departments in the United States, carry iron in peace and in war with San Francisco cops routinely armed with SIG Sauer P226/P229 and pepper spray.
Several countries in the world are in the business of everyday policing without guns, unless the situation merits it. The police force in England and Wales, for example, don’t carry guns. They carry batons.
And San Francisco is not any more dangerous than London. A quick comparison of the Numbeo crime index — an estimation of the overall level of crime in a city — between San Francisco and London reveals no significant difference. In the Numbeo scheme, a city with a crime index closer to 100 is more dangerous. Both London and San Francisco fall square in the middle. San Francisco’s crime index in 2019 was 48.97 and London was a tiny bit less safe at 51.48.
So then, if London cops don’t carry guns, why do S.F. cops need them?
I posed this question to Constance L. “Connie” Rice, a civil rights activist and lawyer at an ethnic media briefing two weeks ago. Rice is well-known for filing class-action civil rights cases, redressing, among other things, police misconduct.
“I don’t think that politically you can do that,” Rice responded. Disarming police would expose them to risk in serious situations, she said.
American policing descended from what Rice calls “suppression containment,” a policy grounded in keeping slaves on plantations and Jews in ghettos in Europe and thus the police have never been able to get away from those cultural origins, of making sure that “black people don’t come out of the ghetto, that Latino people stay in the barrio, that Native Americans stay on the reservations.”
Policing, Rice explained, has been historically tasked with maintaining boundaries.
The horrifying accounts of police violence on black and brown bodies, mostly boys and men, particularly those from lower economic backgrounds, has struck a collective nerve. Americans across the country are clamoring for police accountability and police reform.
In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed unveiled a police reform plan last month, outlining four key priorities, among which are ending police response to non-criminal activity, addressing police bias, demilitarizing the police and implementing strategies “to disconnect the SFPD from federal grants for weapons of attack used against the community.”
According to Rice, any reform must start with an examination of the culture of the police force in the country, Rice said. “[It’s] not enough to change techniques, it’s not enough to do implicit bias training, it’s not enough to take away their choke holds or their tasers, it’s not the weapons, it’s not the training. It’s the mission and the mindset and the policies that they enforce,” she emphasized. This mindset needs to be reset.
Rice’s comments are particularly measured and insightful, however, I keep going back to trying to understand why the SFPD must carry guns, while the London police don’t, when the crime rate is about the same in both metropolises and so too, the perils of police work.
An article by Matthew Yglesias in Vox earlier this month performed an analysis of this question. The reason for arming police with guns is, as Rice suggested, because of the inherent dangers of their job. But Peter Squires and Peter Kennison, authors of a 2010 book called “Shooting to Kill,” argue that it’s more dangerous because of the guns that policemen carry and not the other way around. They back up this claim with results of surveys conducted of unarmed police who are of the opinion that arming police not only causes danger to civilians, but also great psychological harm to police personnel who fire weapons, a cost that often goes uncounted.
Even as he acknowledges this reasoning, Yglesias contends that the reason why it makes sense for American cops to carry guns, as compared to British cops, is because of the gun laws we have in this country. “…the United States has 120 guns per 100 civilians while England and Wales have fewer than five.” This increases the danger element significantly across American cities and towns.
Indeed, this is a pertinent argument and works for the aggregate case. However, California has far more stringent gun laws than the rest of the country. Fourteen percent of Californians own guns, compared to 22 percent nationally,” reported Dan Morain of CalMatters. And last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a number of gun control bills that have gone or will go into effect in 2020. In San Francisco, there are no gun shops; the last one, High Bridge Arms, closed in 2015.
And as we look to the future of effective and bias-free law enforcement, let’s weigh the dangers inherent in routinely carrying lethal weapons.
As Rice put it, “If you have police officers with the right mindset and connections to the community and they’re doing the kind of safety — not policing — but delivery of safety that’s done in partnership with the community,” there will be fewer officer-involved shootings and they will be fulfilling their roles as guardians of peace.
Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Aaryan Ravi, a Bay Area high-schooler, provided research assistance for this article.