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Ideas & Trends: Don't Shoot; The Culture of Cops and Guns. Published: January 11, 1998. Correction Appended. THE statistics do not hit with, say, deadly force. But they do have the power to stun slightly, at least for a public soaked in television police dramas: it turns out that police across the country do not fire their guns much -- in a single day or a full career. And New York City police officers kill civilians less often than those officers in virtually all other major cities. ''Dirty Harry has more shootings in a movie's half-hour than the New York City Police Department cop with the most shootings in his entire career,'' said Jack Ryan, a deputy district attorney in Queens who has investigated police shootings for 20 years.
''Cops, at least most of them, don't like to shoot their guns. When I used to walk into a precinct, I could tell who the cop was who had just shot his gun. He looked like he had a terrible disease. ''.
But if the police are not shooting their guns -- nearly 95 percent of New York City's 38,000 officers have never fired their weapons while fighting crime -- what are they doing with them. One thing the best police officers are not doing with their guns is talking about them. The gun, to them, is a tool: serious and formidable, but also quite routine.
''Hey, firemen don't sit around talking about axes and hoses,'' said Harry Ahearn, a former detective in the city. ''In a couple of decades on the job, I can't recall a lot of philosophical chats about guns or a cop's feelings about them. ''.
A veteran Brooklyn homicide detective added: ''The cops who love their guns, and love to talk about them, are the cops who probably don't use them a lot on the job. They are the cops who are hunting upstate trying to shoot Bambi. ''.
In New York City, as elsewhere, a police officer is not required to carry a gun 24 hours a day. Carrying it off-duty is a matter of choice, judgment and disposition. Most officers, say department officials, do choose to carry them when not working, out of fear or a sense of duty. Others, because of habit or hubris, do so because they can't imagine doing otherwise. It makes for an interestingly uneventful relationship: carrying a weapon loaded with bullets and symbolism and yet almost never using it. Chiefly, it produces an array of decisions more pragmatic than dramatic: modest off-duty police officers wear their guns unseen on their ankles, for example, and others more visibly inside their jackets. But that relationship often calls for split-second decision-making: Just recently, when an off-duty officer was being attacked in a Manhattan subway, he mistakenly shot and wounded a 16-year-old boy who was coming to his aid.
Raymond Kelly, a former New York City Police Commissioner and the current Under Secretary of the Treasury in charge of enforcement, remembers the summer day in 1966 when he was first given his gun. There was rioting in the streets. He was handed a uniform, a gun and no training. ''Don't pull the gun out of your holster,'' Mr. Kelly recalled his superiors saying, ''and, by the way, get to Brooklyn now.
''. A Powerful Attraction. He added: ''There is a fascination with the gun, particularly when you first get it. Everybody likes the power. It's the human condition.
Any cop who says there isn't a fascination is lying. ''. Police, out of fascination or fear, dream a fair amount about their guns.
''Usually they fire their gun in the dream and the bullets just sort of plop out,'' said Tony Bouza, a former New York City officer who is now chief of police in Minneapolis. However one chooses to interpret such dreams, a cop's real nightmare is losing a gun.
Losing it means embarrassment and agonizing over a potential newspaper headline about the gun being used in a murder. Losing a gun means worrying about whether a child has discovered it. Losing a gun means, at minimum, being docked five vacation days. Toilet stalls are a familiar locale of forgotten weapons. ''I pat myself down when I go out, and if I don't have it, I panic,'' said a 15-year Manhattan officer.
''Where is it? And did I lock it up?''. Most police retire without ever having fired their weapons. ''I could probably count the cop shootings on one hand,'' said Officer Tom Snyder of the 325-officer police department in Madison, Wis. And then he did: three in 1995, none in 1996, two in 1997.
John Timoney, a former first deputy commissioner in New York, said that since 1972, when the department began reviewing every firearm discharge, the number of shootings has been cut in half. ''I don't know if there is any one attitude among cops about their guns,'' Mr.
Timoney said. ''Psychologists like to talk about their phallic significance and all that. To me, the smart ones don't carry them off-duty. They know it's likely to be more trouble than it's worth.
''. In 1994, the department considered requiring new officers to leave their weapons at the station house after each shift during their first two years on the job. ''We wanted to see if, psychologically, the cops would begin to believe they could be effective cops without their guns,'' said Michael Julian, a former senior department official. The idea died quickly. ''Most cops are psychologically attached to their guns, and a small percentage are psychologically attached in a bad way,'' Mr. Julian said.
''It gives them a sense of control, and they like that. But, yeah, you can come to hate the gun a bit. Still, no one is giving them up.
Cops can't wait to get out of uniform. They are less quick to give up their guns. ''.
Photo: A target after officers practiced firing from 21 feet. (Edward Hausner/The New York Times). Correction: January 18, 1998, Sunday Because of an editing error, an article last Sunday about police officers' feelings toward their guns misstated the Minneapolis affiliation of Anthony Bouza, a retired New York police commander who described a dream many officers have of guns malfunctioning.
He is a former police chief of Minneapolis, not the current one.