In the United States, heavily armed police shoot two people dead every day. In Britain, the vast majority of police officers patrol armed only with a baton and pepper spray, and there have been a total of two fatal police shootings in three years. Is there a lesson to be learned here? The Washington Post this week says yes.
As the United States reckons with that toll — and with the constant drip of videos showing the questionable use of force by officers — lightly armed Britain might seem an unorthodox place to look for solutions. But experts say the way British bobbies are trained, commanded and vigorously scrutinized may offer U.S. police forces a useful blueprint for bringing down the rate of deadly violence and defusing some of the burning tension felt in cities from coast to coast.
We have more guns here - shocker - but there are lessons to be learned.
Few here would argue that the United States should adopt Britain’s nearly firearms-free approach. But as increasingly horrified British officers and commanders have watched videos of American police officers firing on civilians, they say they hope that some of their strategies and practices can be translated across the Atlantic.
Sir Peter Fahy, chief of the Greater Manchester Police, commands 6,700 officers — just 209 of whom are armed. Those authorized to carry guns, he said, face extremely tight protocols governing when they can be deployed and under what circumstances they can fire. Shooting at moving vehicles, at people brandishing knives and at suspects fleeing a scene are all strictly forbidden except under extreme circumstances.
“It’s very controlled,” he said. “There’s a huge emphasis on human rights, a huge emphasis on proportionality, a huge emphasis on considering every other option.”
All officers, he said, are taught to back away from any situation that might otherwise escalate and to not feel that they have to “win” every confrontation.
“I constantly remind our officers that their best weapon is their mouth,” he said. “Your first consideration is, ‘Can you talk this through? Can you buy yourself time?’ ”
That mantra helps explain why, across England and Wales over the past decade, there has been an average of only five incidents a year in which police have opened fire.
So, too, does the stringent screening process. Officers must serve for years before they can apply to carry a gun, and the selection of those deemed worthy is intensely competitive.
Imagine that. Human rights? Who would have thought? De-escalation? Gibberish. I spent two decades among cops virtually every day. This is not how we train police officers to think. Here, it’s “get them before they get you. It’s a jungle out there.”
And five shootings per year? My guess is that’s a good hour’s worth of lead expended in the United States.
More than any particular law change, be it body cameras or other accountability measures, we have to change the culture of police work, to put more of an effort into the kinds of thinking that are routine in England. Talk first. Buy time. De-escalate. This is not a war, it’s your community. As we’ve seen even this week in McKinney, the racial problems run deep and won’t go away immediately or easily. But we have to try - the over 700 deaths at the hands of police waiting to happen this year, and the next, and the next, demand better answers. The sooner we start, the sooner the blood will stop flowing in our streets.