Thursday, September 20, 2012

Police: Britain vs the US

Here in the US we live in a country where our police are constantly demanding more firepower and the latest in military weaponry for their officers. The gulf between the police and the people they are supposed to "serve and protect" has perhaps never been wider. But this is not the norm everywhere.

On Tuesday two female police officers were lured by a false report of a burglary to a house and then ambushed and shot dead. The suspect is a 29 year old man with a long police record who was out on bail at the time for suspicion of murder. This happened in Great Britain and the two police officers were unarmed. As one might expect there has been a huge uproar and a massive outpouring of sympathy for the female PCs and their families.

There has been something else though as well. A few voices are suggesting that the time has come for Britain to "join the modern world" and arm its police. Since the establishment of the country's first real police in the early 19th century the tradition has been that most of their officers are unarmed except for a short truncheon. Today about one in ten British police carry a gun. Most police departments have special armed rapid response units for situations where they may be needed. But the average beat cop is still no more heavily armed than his predecessor during the reign of William IV.

Public opinion polls show little enthusiasm for an armed police force. Nor has there been any movement in that direction among Britain's political class from either party. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister threw cold water on the idea yesterday when the subject came up. What is surprising, especially in contrast to our police here in the US, is that the overwhelming majority of British cops don't want guns either.

The heads of almost all of Britain's major police forces and police union leaders were very quick to declare that they saw no compelling argument for arming the nation's police. Polls have shown that both police and citizenry believe that issuing guns to cops would create a barrier between them and the public.

People should not draw erroneous conclusions from this and buy into the fairytale that there is no violent crime in Britain. Point in fact UK crime rates are comparable to those in the US for most offenses. The exception is homicide where the per-capita murder rate is a fraction of ours. Which is no doubt one reason why the premeditated murder of two police officers has so shocked the nation.

Which leads to the contrast in approaches to policing between Britain and here where we are militarizing our police at an alarming rate that I find fascinating. Is there a compelling argument for beat cops to be carrying military assault weapons? I remain dubious.

Of course we do have different conditions here. Unlike in the UK where the right to own weapons has been more or less suppressed, here the Second Amendment enjoys greater strength in the law and courts than at any time in the last 100 years. And this is reflected in levels of gun ownership. America has one of the most heavily armed populations on the planet which undoubtedly contributes on at least some level to our high murder rate.

Even so I remain a supporter of gun rights with a few common sense restrictions. Yes, it is a double edged sword. But I believe the trade off is a necessary one in a free society where the state should always be treated as a necessary evil and all its acts regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism.

One obvious byproduct is that an unarmed police force is a nonstarter on this side of the pond. But does that mean that our police need to become an essentially para-military force that one would normally associate with authoritarian states?

I think not.

I have never seen any evidence that suggests we are safer with cops in armored cars carrying machine guns than we would be with beat cops carrying a judiciously loaded .357 magnum revolver. And there is a great deal of evidence showing that the overarming of our police is causing unnecessary use of force incidents and civilian causalities.

It is time to step back from this and have a serious discussion about what kind of police we want and need in our society.


Chris Jones said...

In general I share your point of view, but I think you are mistaken when you write

... the state should always be treated as a necessary evil and all its acts regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism

You may think this is a quibble but I do not think that a Christian can describe the state as "a necessary evil." The state is of divine institution and its legitimate authority (including the proper use of force) is granted by God. And nothing that is instituted and authorized by God is evil -- not even a "necessary evil."

What we can say is that the state, which in itself is a good thing instituted by God, is populated and run by fallen human beings, and is therefore subject to abuse, corruption, and perversion to evil purposes. That is the reason why the state is to be regarded with skepticism; not because the state itself is evil.

This is perhaps a subtle distinction but I think it is a valid and necessary one.

The Archer of the Forest said...

I would question that statistic about 1 in 10 UK police officers being armed. When I lived there, it felt like a bloody police state. I even got severely questioned when I got off the train one time and was asked to produce my passport (for no reason whatsoever) and I didn't have it because I was living there on a student visa. (I did have my American driver's license.) That cop was certainly armed.

John (Ad Orientem) said...

There are special law enforcement units or details that are routinely armed in the UK. This would include, but not limited to, transit police and their equivalent to the border patrol, airport security, counter terror units, Special Branch (their version of our Secret Service) etc.

Visibilium said...

John, the police revolver didn't provide a satisfactory answer to two simultaneous problems: (1) the increasing presence of multiple armed principals and (2) the highly uncertain and variable nature of handgun stopping power. The problems couldn't be resolved solely through ammo choice and shot placement. The satisfactory answer has been high-capacity autos, which ideally combine more bullets with better bullets and more hits.

Your argument boils down to a simple proposition: more misses are worse than fewer misses. I agree, but misses are a training issue. Misses are primarily a mindset issue. Police agencies tend to handle technical firearms training pretty well because of liability. The mindset isn't handled well because elements of a successful mindset run counter to the principles of a society that values every human life as infinitely precious. Keep in mind that police agencies are responsible for depriving citizens of their liberties, and we all want that power to be handled in an orderly fashion that's consistent with a high regard for everyone's right to life.

You may be absolutely correct that the homicide rate in Britain is lower than America's. I haven't looked because a strictly quantitative view would be irrelevant. Guns have been known as equalizers for good reason. They provide the ability to equalize the force disparity between groups of young thugs and weak, infirm, and solitary individuals.

On another subject, I disagree that the State is a necessary evil only because I disagree that the State is necessary, not because the State isn't an evil. Stateless societies have existed during the course of human history, but we haven't figured out the conditions for the successful implementation of non-monopolistic, non-coercive physical force in non-traditional, demographically heterogeneous populations.

venters said...

Just curious, Chris, regarding " (including the proper use of force) is granted by God." Are there limits to the use of force granted by God to the state?

Chris Jones said...

"Are there limits?"

Of course, although neither the Bible nor the Church's Tradition is explicit as to what those limits are. The limits are implicit in the purpose of the state as laid out in Romans 13: The restraint of evil and establishment of justice.

How this works out in practice is left to our human reason and judgment; there is no divinely ordained political ideology. That's why we have politics. Revelation tells us the purpose of the state, and establishes its authority. Everything else is prudential judgment.

Visibilium said...

The preference for a society governed by a State isn't a divine revelation, but a political philosophy. It really comes down to what a State is and what the Fathers were talking about when they viewed particular secular authority as divinely appointed. If the Fathers define the State rather broadly by implicitly identifying the State with particular embodiments of the generalized societal function of order-keeping, I don't think that they'd get too many disputes. In fact, may people in our modern age think of the State in such a manner. On the other hand, defining a divinely-legitimate State more narrowly, for example, as an entity reserving for itself a monopoly on the application of coercive force within a particular territory would constitute a political philosophy open to dispute by rational sheep.