The Biggest Threat to the Role of Police Officers
(The Biggest Threat to the Role of Police Officers)
Every summer about a dozen journalists gather at a former army training camp north of London to spend the day watching the training of London's special armed police unit. These are the people who regularly have to tackle the increasing number of criminals who are prepared to carry guns.
The journalists also get a chance to shoot a gun on the practice range; none of it seems that difficult, and we put most of the bullets somewhere on the target. But then we move on to the next stage of the training, where some of the problems which actually crop up on the street are imitated. The lights on the range are dimmed and we are stood in front of a large screen. We still have guns, but the bullets are fake, and videos are played where actors act out various types of situations.
Does the man holding a woman in front of him really have a gun or not? Is the man apparently preparing to surrender really going to, or is he going to raise the gun in front of him and shoot? We have to decide whether to shoot and when, just like the police officer has to when faced with this situation for real. The journalists' results here were not so impressive. I am afraid we killed many an innocent person carrying nothing more lethal than a stick.
The debate over whether more police in Britain should be armed with guns has been going on for years. The current policy is to have a small number of specialists available in each of the 43 police departments in Britain. They are kept up to scratch with intensive and regular training.
But the wisdom of that policy has been questioned as the amount of violence encountered by the police has grown. It is usually the ordinary street officer who is on the wrong end of this, rather than the armed experts who arrive rather later.
To see the direction in which the British police are heading, consider the experience of the Northumbria police who have responsibility for law and order in 5,000 square kilometers of Northeast England. The population is 1.5 million, living in rural areas and a few urban centers. The 3,600 police officers in the force deal with all the typical problems thrown up by the Britain of the 1990s.
John Stevens, head of the Northumbria Police Department, has just published his review of the past years. During 1994, for example, 61 officers (54 men and seven women) were forced into early retirement after being attacked on duty. Before being allowed to leave the police for medical reasons, they lost between them 12,000 days on sick leave: the equivalent of 50 police officers off the street for a full year.
Stevens makes this observation: "The personal cost of policing has never been so high. One third of the officers leaving were disabled in the very worst degree and will suffer for the rest of their lives for their efforts in the fight against crime."
This picture of a policeman's lot could be repeated in many other parts of Britain, yet the police themselves still oppose more widespread arming of their officers. The most recent survey, conducted last year, showed that only 46% were in favor.
The general public, however, likes the idea: 67% favored wider issuing of guns. But they, of course, would not have to carry them and maybe even use them. Recalling my own experience shooting a gun on the practice range, I certainly would not want the responsibility.
It is clear to everyone that the police need more protection against the gun and the knife. They already carry longer clubs to replace the old ones. They have access to knife-resistant coats and gloves.
The likely next step is agreement from the Government to test pepper spray, an organic substance derived from peppers which disables an attacker if sprayed in his face. If used properly, the discomfort, although extreme, is only temporary. Provided the spray is washed away with water, recovery should be complete within a couple of hours. Unpleasant, certainly, but better than being shot.
Many people in Britain would not mind seeing their police with longer clubs or even pepper spray. They would just like to see them at all. I have lost count of the times we have been filming police officers on the street when local residents have come up to us and told us it is the first time in weeks they have seen police in the area.
Actually the biggest threat to the traditional image and role of police officers does not come from guns and armed crime but the increase in the tasks we expect the police to carry out. New laws and police priorities are taking up so much time that many forces simply cannot afford to let their officers walk up and down the streets. Politicians are now asking members of the public to watch the streets. In some prosperous areas, local people pay private security firms.
Many officers believe it is all these extra duties, rather than the fear of being shot, that have really changed their role. In future, if you want to know what time it is there might not be much point asking a policeman. He either will not be there to ask or will not have the time to answer.