“When seconds matter, police are just minutes away”: Doubts about Law Enforcement

The often-quoted sentiment in the title exemplifies the cynicism surrounding the ability of law enforcement to protect individuals. The post published on the 13th July 2015 demonstrated that a number of YouTube commentators blamed the ban on allowing students and staff at Virginia Tech University for the high death toll from the tragic 2007 shooting. What may be extrapolated from this is that the concept of defending one’s self is inextricably linked to individuals, rather than the police — this is particularly remarkable, considering law enforcement is an institutional body entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the public. The purpose of this blog post is to uncover the reasons why this is the case.

As posts published throughout July and August 2015 have highlighted, YouTube users are familiar with previous school shootings and draw upon those ‘second hand’ experiences to form ideas about what might transpire during such an incident. The relatively short time period in which school shootings occur is likely a driving factor. Some YouTube users made sardonic comments that pizza would be delivered before the police arrived. Commentators drew upon knowledge of past school shootings, pointing out that most of these ended before law enforcement arrived. There is some truth to this: only 27% of thirty-seven school shootings were stopped by law enforcement and several studies have documented the proclivity of school shooters to kill themselves before law enforcement intervention.(1)

Further to this, YouTube users were particularly scathing of the abilities of law enforcement on college and university campuses to offer protection, purporting they were ‘tiny forces’ with ‘little experience’ and thus ‘not equipped’ to act as first responders to a school shooting situation. Something which acutely concerned users was the fact that in some states campus police are ‘unarmed,’ meaning they do not have access to lethal weapons (firearms). The Secret Service (2002) report, however, found that only 8% of school shootings required law enforcement to discharge weapons. (2)

The outcome of these sentiments then translates into the idea that police are just there to ‘clean up the crime scene’ of all those killed before they arrived. Accordingly, numerous YouTube commentators appeared to believe that the purpose of the police is not to act as ‘bodyguards’ or ‘prevent crimes’ but to ‘enforce the law’ by investigating crimes after they transpire and acting as a visible deterrent to criminals. As documented in empirical studies, fear — in this case of a school shooting or even just general crime on campus — is a catalyst for eroding trust and confidence in the police. (3) Such a sentiment, hence, paves the way for the notion that the individual is the only one who can be trusted to protect themselves — this will be elucidated in the next post in relation to the issue of students and concealed carry.

[This blog post was put together from analyses of YouTube comments and further reading around fear and government studies of lessons to be learned from previous school shooting incidents. The next blog post will bring together all the elements discussed in posts throughout July and August 2015.]

(1). See the following studies: Lankford, A. (2013a). ‘A comparative analysis of suicide terrorists and rampage, workplace, and school shooters in the United States from 1990 to 2010.’ Homicide Studies: An Interdisciplinary & International Journal, 17 (3), 255-274; Lankford, A. (2013b) ‘Mass Shooters in the USA, 1996-2010. Differences between attackers who live and die.’ Justice Quarterly; Vossekuil, B., R. A. Fein, M. Reddy, R. Borum, and W. Modzeleski. (2004) The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. Washington.

(2) Vossekuil, B., R. A. Fein, M. Reddy, R. Borum, and W. Modzeleski. (2004) The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. Washington.

(3) Farrall, S. D., J. Jackson and E. Gray. (2009) Social Order and the Fear of Crime in Contemporary Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Gray, E., J. Jackson and S. Farrall (2011) ‘Feelings and Functions in the Fear of Crime: Applying a New Approach to Victimisation Insecurity.’ British Journal of Criminology 51, 75-94.

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