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Mass shootings are changing the way police operate

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Today, many Americans will be heading to church, and there will be prayers for the victims of last week's shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn. The police there were praised for their swift response, but how are these incidents changing the way they operate and the culture of law enforcement? To help answer that question, with us is Pete Kraska, a professor of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University who studies police militarization.

Thank you so much for being with us, Pete.

PETE KRASKA: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So, you know, obviously, last week, we saw another just terrible shooting. How can police departments prepare to respond to these types of shootings? What does that even entail?

KRASKA: It's a very difficult situation for the police. It's something that they are trying to figure out. It used to be that you had specialized police units like a SWAT team, a special response team that would handle these kinds of circumstances. But now with an active shooter situation, and time is of the essence, and a SWAT team will take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes to deploy, oftentimes, it's the road patrol officers that are in proximity to the situation that arrive first and have to handle that situation expeditiously.

RASCOE: One of the big issues is that these shootings are involving very high firepower - you know, these semi-automatic rifles or things like the AR-15 - and are police getting more or using more of these sorts of weapons to deal with the fact that these are the sort of instances that they may face?

KRASKA: It's difficult to say because these instances are still, at least statistically, extremely rare. So whether these police departments are jumping in and saying, you know, we have to get certain kinds of weaponry, and we have to do certain kinds of training, we don't really have any data on that right now. Certainly, from what I know with working with different police departments, it's on the tip of their mind. They are - more and more road patrol officers are now armed with what we call long guns, or a AR-15 or some similar type of weapon, and most of the time, there are policies in place, but it's really sporadic that those guns can only come out and be deployed under real specific active-shooter situations.

RASCOE: I want to dig into that, because if you have more police officers carrying long guns, what does it mean to have a police force that is so heavily armed in your community?

KRASKA: Right. And the heavily armed part is really significant, and that could have all kinds of consequences. But we also have to remember that the training that comes along with being heavily armed is steeped in a mindset of, we're going to be confronting an enemy, and that could happen any day, any moment, at any time, and that can have really negative consequences for the relationship between the community and police. When the police start seeing their jobs as so terribly dangerous and risk filled that they need to fully arm themselves like a soldier and then approach the citizenry that way in a democratic society, you're obviously going to displace an ethic of engagement with the community.

RASCOE: Even though, statistically, they are relatively rare, mass shootings in this country are much more than other industrialized democracies, so the question is, well, how can the police deal with this? I know some would say the police are not the answer.

KRASKA: Well, I hope that politicians and, to some extent, the media doesn't put a lot of the burden for solving this problem on the police, because all the police can do under these circumstances is wait for these things to happen and - I mean, it's not all they can do, but most of what they can do is wait for these things to happen and then react to that situation. And unfortunately, in this country, we really focus on police-centered solutions. And I think in this particular situation, there's not a good police-centered solution. They certainly have to be part of the solution. But new gun control laws, doing something about just the ubiquity of guns in society has to be addressed, and at the same time, I think it is really important to make sure that the police are well equipped and well trained to handle these situations when they do come up.

RASCOE: That's Pete Kraska, a professor of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University.

Thank you so much for joining us.

KRASKA: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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