I hate the sight of armed, British, police officers. Absolutely hate it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, in some places I understand it. For example, in airports, I get it. At the end of Downing Street, I just about get it, (although a friend of mine in the Army recently explained the strange historical conventions about the Army guarding the monarch but not members of parliament…). There are some places where the police need to access deadly force quickly.
And, the wonderful (if you can say that) thing about our armed police is the huge level of training and regulation they are subject to. Whereas in the US, you might be the security guard at the local ASDA and they’ll dole out the artillery, here, armed police officers go through rigorous training and I understand interviewing and forms of screening.
What I hate about it is the symbolic acceptance that this country now has a gun culture.
Terrorism and the threat thereof is not the explanation for a proliferation of armed officers in and about London and other big cities. If it were they would have been there since the 70s and really beyond. Here is one of the most odd policing pictures of the 20th century. It’s from the Siege of Sidney Street in 1911. There are three things which I think are really interesting about this photograph. But, before I share. The Siege of Sidney Street occurred after a small gang of immigrants tried to robber a jewellers. The police caught up with them and three unarmed police officers were shot and killed. A couple of weeks later, the police are given information as to where they are hiding.
200 police officers descend on Sidney Street and form the siege. However, the occupants of the hide out have weapons and a large stock of ammo. So, down comes Churchill with a detachment of the Scots Guards. Churchill even ordered the deployment of a piece of field artillery. Before the artillery piece was fired, the occupants of the house were all consumed in flames and died.
1) What role do the armed forces have in civilian policing? The answer to me is not none. The expectation is none. And the expectation ought to be none. Sidney Street is the first real modern example of where the civil police have quite frankly been outgunned. You see the in the picture, one bobby with a shotgun, probably there to protect Churchill more than anything else, the rest unarmed. And then, on the left, the Scots’ Guards rifles out, bayonets ready.
If Sidney Street happened again tomorrow, then the civil police would, 99% deal with it. Is that necessarily the right thing? In one sense it must be, the main focus of the police is the preservation of life and the detection and prevention of crime. Whereas, with the army, the main purpose is the defence of the national interest and the neutralisation of threats thereto.
But, gearing police officers up to do this type of armed, almost battle like, policing is perhaps difficult for wider police culture. And it’s also really difficult for wider police/public PR. In our recent most memory, Mark Duggan’s death and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes (of course the latter had army involvement.)
Comparatively, the Iranian Embassy siege and the army deployment at Heathrow in 1994 and 2003 were done relatively without incident.
Can we not accept then, as we have over the last 100 years that there will be moments that the Army has to be brought in. Can we say that we don’t want a police culture which has a ‘battle’, or ‘war’ like aspect to it in any respect? Because if that starts to set in then policing by consent and being officers of the peace really is over.
As an example, the Canadians from 1993 onwards relieved the Royal Canadian Mounted Police from their counter terrorism function and handed it over to the armed forces…
2) The role of politicians Churchill, symbolically is at the centre of that picture. One of the footnotes in history is that at the siege of Sidney Street, Churchill a) ordered the deployment of artillery! b) refused to allow the fire brigade through to the burning house to try and save the gun men inside. Thatcher authorised the deployment of the SAS to take over at the Iranian Embassy and Blair fortified Heathrow.
Forced to pause here and return to my aside at the start about the strange conventions on the military guarding the Queen and not parliament. Of course, the armed forces take orders and follow.
British policing has a central ideal of independence, which likewise is supposed to be present in the CPS, in barristers and in the Judiciary.
My worry about politicians having power over armed police officers and fraught high risk situations is, put simply, what the hell do they know? More cynically, the Iranian Embassy Siege gave Thatcher a huge political boost, I’m not saying she did what she did for that reason. But, there’s a risk isn’t there that the use of high level force could be authorised to gain political points.
The Federal Constitutional Court in Germany have been really hot on this type of risk. The Americans lay it down in statute. We open it up to the discretion of politicians and rely on British notions of separate policing power, political power and military power.
3) The arms race was really apparent at Sidney Street. The army were called in because the Police didn’t have the firepower to deal with the occupants of the house. At the Iranian Embassy Siege firepower wasn’t really the issue, more tactics (after all the PC guarding the Embassy did deal with one hostage taker using his .38 Smith and Wesson revolver.)
I do fear that there’s something of an arms race going on, partly, because of how we have increased the number of armed police officers. I can only base this on my own experience, I don’t know yours.
When I lived in the US, I would never see a police officer brandishing an assault rifle. That’s despite the fact that guns where everywhere and I could have got myself a shotgun with my McDonalds in the morning. Most police officers I interacted with had a similar weapon to what PC Lock did at the Iranian Embassy Siege, a .39 Smith and Wesson revolver in their holster. Or, else, a 9mm semi automatic pistol.
In Europe too, very rare one sees the police (outside of airports/palaces etc) brandishing rifles. Instead, most of got the Austrian made Glock in their holsters. So, the weaponry is there, but it’s not so obvious.
Here and I don’t really know the answer! The police are much more about their sub-machine guns. So the MP5 is a familiar sight, 15 or 30 9mm rounds that can be fired in 3 shot bursts. But more recently, I’ve noticed a change:
The German army
The Greek army
South Korea’s – ‘special sea attack team’
The Latvian army
The Portuguese Marine Corps
The Spanish Army and Navy
So now, we see, regularly, the Met Police carrying a weapon on our streets with huge stopping power. A weapon used by the armies and navies of other countries we are now using in civilian law enforcement. And that scares me. Are the bad guys going to step up to out do the G36? We’re hearing more about MAC-10s being found in London all 1000 rounds a minute of it.
Why in a heavy gun culture can the police cope with the gold ole fashion .38 Smith and Wesson and here, in a culture where guns aren’t the norm do the police need something as powerful as the G36?
What do we want?
We want to be safe. We don’t want police officers being killed, we don’t want kids being killed. We don’t want mistakes like the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. But where’s the balance?
I don’t want to live in a gun culture. The results of gun cultures are clear. When I sat down and watched the news last night and saw the South African police shoot dead 34 people, I couldn’t believe it. It might as well have been the Peterloo Massacre as far as I was concerned.
I don’t want to live in a culture where a state official might authorise that level of violence against a group of protesting people.
What do you want?