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.