I Was A Cop In A Country With No Guns: 6 Startling Truths
Over the first eight months of 2015, American police killed 776 people, while British police killed exactly one. American police are eight times as likely to kill a citizen, and ten times as likely to die on the job, as their essentially unarmed British counterparts.
We wanted to get an idea of just why this was, so we spoke to Charley Clark, who spent nearly a decade as a police constable and a detective constable in Hackney, one of the most deprived and dangerous boroughs in London. Naturally, as we were writing about how much safer the UK is with its lack of guns, despite having a commensurate percentage of unstable potential criminals, this happened. But the fact that the attacker is alive to face trial is a testament to the police involved and to how long it takes Trojan, the British Police armed response teams, to arrive. The suspect was armed -- the arresting officers were not. Welcome to policing, British-style.
WARNING: TONS OF BRITISH SLANG AHEAD.
It's A Dangerous Job No Matter Where You Do It
I spent nearly a decade as a cop on the streets of one of the biggest cities in the world, dealing with violent dangerous criminals. Plot twist: I did it without carrying anything more lethal than diet mace and a metal stick. When I talk about The Job, as we all call it, the first thing people ask is whether it's dangerous. The only honest answer to that is "It depends."
I worked my whole career in Hackney, a borough of London that has something of a reputation. If you've watched Luther at any point, you know the area. Almost all the backdrops Idris Elba smolders his way through are in Hackney. Universally known as Crackney, it's less than eight square miles that are home to more than 260,000 people. That's a greater population density than in New York, L.A., or Lagos, for that matter. All these people are pissed off at somebody -- and a lot of the time, it's us po-po.
This is the England you don't see during the royal "smile and wave all proper-like" roundabouts.
So what does it mean to police this neighborhood? Well, you get gangs, first and foremost. Cops love gangs. They give us a nice, easily-defined enemy, and they wear color-coded clothes for your convenience. Good old "us versus them," right? Nonsense. I've taken part in "rowdy buses," where we go about in groups and put hands in their pockets. For the most part, it ends up good-natured.
Once, in the middle of the swine flu crisis, I was full of the cold and sneezed mid-search. The gang member whose pockets I was delving for drugs and weapons giggled to himself and made a swine flu joke. I joined in the chuckles, until one of his compatriots loudly declared he didn't get it (he didn't know that swine and pig are the same thing). That set the entire gang off, and we spent a happy few minutes ripping the piss out of him. Next time I saw them, it was all smiles and jokes.
Getting roasted is better than getting shot.
By contrast, a mate once stopped an elderly geezer, mostly to pass the time of day. He asked what the old-timer had in his shopping bag, only to be greeted with the severed head of the old boy's wife of 60 years. That put him off his breakfast.
I hasten to add that it's not that every gang member is a jocular scamp, scrumping apples and whatever tiffin is. [Ed. note: We have no idea what any of those words mean. We assume they only make sense to British people.] I was involved in the 2011 riots, and more than one occasion in Gilpin Square, or a Friday night in Shoreditch, has seen me outnumbered 200 or 300 to one, praying that the uniform and a good, commanding voice will keep them from realizing the odds. I made it, so I guess I did something right.
Still no guns -- this being the worst possible time to see if you're any good at using one.
One colleague, who has now left the job, was intentionally driven into by a bandit car recently stolen by means of burglary. She made it, but it was one of the more serious injuries, because a car was used, so it required a significant stay in hospital. She was, as is right and proper, visited by senior staff. As it was, she was out of her gourd on morphine, and greeted the commander of the North East Cluster by pulling up her hospital gown and offering to show him her gash. The commander didn't visit Hackney so much after that.
Our Training Is More Philosophical Than Tactical
So how does it work? Unlike the U.S. model of law enforcement, we have a thing we call Policing By Consent, based on the principles of a chap called Sir Robert Peel, who came up with the Metropolitan Police in 1829. It states that constables are citizens in uniform "who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence." It's been the guiding principle for close to 200 years, and if I had my way, any copper over the rank of inspector would be forcibly tattooed with Peel's Nine Principles of Policing, just to remind them.
However you say "Don't be a dick" in old-timey slang, this guy said it first, and best.
I appreciate that, to U.S. coppers who are issued more guns than cameras, this approach probably sounds like the kind of woolly pinko nonsense that they'd expect from us tea-sipping dandies. And to be fair, it does make a lot more sense for every officer to be armed in the U.S., since so many citizens are armed in the U.S. London, as a whole, had 114 homicides and 1,662 gun crimes last year, in a population of 8.63 million. It's not even fair to compare.
In London, constables are encouraged to live in their boroughs where possible and to see themselves as part of the community, which is a good idea philosophically, but can have its consequences. For instance, two Essex officers decided to execute a warrant on a gang of importers on Christmas Eve and tore apart every single present under the tree, just to let them know who's boss. They got followed home, and the lead detective's house was burned down.
"And what have we learned?"
"Be coppers, not Krampus."
On the other hand, I was hopping the train home one day when a hand like a ham hock landed on my shoulder with a heavily-accented grunt of "DC Clark. Do you remember me?" In my line of work, this does not aid digestion, I assure you. I turned to meet the largest lump of Polish builder you have ever seen. Turned out I had investigated and charged him for assaulting his wife. He had spent three weeks in prison. Honestly thought I was going to die. He shook my hand and thanked me for getting him away from "that hateful bitch." Never have I been so glad I was decent to someone during interview. Oh yeah, we have interviews instead of interrogations. We're not even allowed to lie to the suspect about the evidence we have.
Truth, Justice, and the British Way.
That said, when there's power to be had, there's always going to be someone abusing it. Britain has had its issues with race and racist cops over the years. The '80s and '90s were a time of under-supervised police with a proclivity for violence, and what were known as sus laws. These meant that an officer could arrest if he had the suspicion that a person had committed an offense. A surprisingly high number of those falling under suspicion were black. In the end, the whole nick was demolished and rebuilt to try to rid the area of the stain of abuse of force. This was all long before I joined, but it was never too far from our minds.
America has its own version of sus, sadly called "everyday life."
And when it comes to crowd control and the containment of protests, lawful and otherwise, the Met has a fairly checkered history. Kettling was a perfectly accepted practice of keeping protesters trapped in one place without food, water, toilets, etc., and was an arrow in the public order quiver until the sheer weight of legal challenges made it politically untenable. It was ruled lawful in 2012, but you'll not catch many public order commanders recommending it as a tactical option these days.
So What Equipment And Tactics Can We Use?
If we're walking the streets without the safety blanket of a trusty firearm, surely we must have a plethora of tactical options and the kind of training Chuck Norris dreams of, right? Oh, you optimistic soul. When I joined, police "academy," such as it was, was 16 weeks residential training at Hendon, another London borough. The poor sods starting now don't even get that. Of those 16 weeks, we spent probably three days in total on Officer Safety Training. This was our introduction to our weapons of war -- namely, an extendable metal stick called an asp and a tin of aggressive hairspray laughably termed CS as if it's tear gas, despite it being a four-percent solution. In the States, you might recognize these as the self-defense options of a lady on her way to the country club if, and only if, the .38 ruined the line of her handbag. That was what I was issued to police the streets of the capital city.
Barely a step above Taco Bell sauce in a spray bottle.
The training was designed to teach us how to disarm suspects wielding knives, guns, and foul language. Some of it might have been effective, if enough time was given to really hammer home the muscle memory and make it second nature. We were given a one-day refresher every six months. I think I went two years between sessions during the riots. Oddly, I didn't rely on the training that often.
The one lesson that everyone who ever became a half-decent copper did take on board was that the most important piece of officer safety equipment we ever had was talk. Every single lesson hammered home deescalation and Betari's Box, which looks more like something your hippie friend would share on Facebook than police policy:
And all this, rather than guns and tasers, are the most common tools London police have to persuade a six-foot lump of psychotic anger that what he really wants is to put down the lamp post and sleep it off.
Do we want guns? If given the option of carrying a firearm on patrol, most London cops would refuse emphatically. The last survey I recall had only 22 percent of the rank-and-file wanting a gun [a study in 2006 showed 82 percent of police federation members did not want officers armed], and my personal response was always a firm "No thanks." I spent some time in the Army, so I'm no stranger to guns, but I've simply never needed the option of one, and most of my former colleagues feel the same way.
All that free time not being spent on a gun range leads to learning way cooler skills, anyway.
Don't get me wrong -- it was a fairly common topic of conversation, and there were always young and new-in-service gung-ho types who thought we needed guns. They are usually the exact kinds of people you don't want to have guns. I remember a grizzled old sweat listening to a young pup talking about how we all should be issued with Glocks at once. His only response was a long draw on a roll-up and the damning proclamation: "Son, no sensible authorized firearms officer would trust you with fucking string, let alone a shooter." So that was that for his dreams of Hot Fuzz.
But for the most part, we'd quite like everyone to have a taser. The only circumstances we could all agree on for routine arming of all constables was rock-solid intelligence of a Mumbai-style atrocity. Mind you, criminals firing on coppers are a vanishing rarity, which probably sways our opinion some. Basically, it comes down to the fact that our conflicts so very rarely involve firearms that we simply don't need them. If I knew every drunk or crackhead I stopped to search had a concealed carry, I would be the first in the queue at the armorers.
What Does A Confrontation Look Like For Unarmed Law Enforcers?
Cops in the UK are held accountable for each and every action. At least half of every OST training session was devoted to legislation and law covering police powers and use of force. If I got my asp out and waved it in a threatening manner to make someone behave, I had used force and had damn well better write some notes to justify it. I never got to use a taser, which is a damn shame, because they're smashing fun. But if I drew one from its holster, notes. If I pointed it -- colloquially known as red-dotting -- best believe I'd be writing notes. Fire the dratted thing, or use the CS, and the notes might go to eight pages.
Example: This man will take longer to finish his notes than George R.R. Martin will take to finish A Song Of Ice And Fire.
So talking it out saves us some note-writing. Oh, and it saves lives, too. There's no such thing as a "typical" confrontation, but here's an example of one that's representative. Back when I was on the street, I was in a panda -- that's a non-response car, so no flashy lights. I was partnered with a colleague I'll call Tom, who's since left the job as well. Spot the theme.
We were going to what's called a welfare check, meaning someone might be in a bit of difficulty and someone else wants the police to come make sure everything's all right. These are never too much of a risk, except when they are. We weren't more than a few minutes away, and so got there first. Tom and I walked up on a six-foot-plus guy, clearly agitated, who was watching children play football in the park as my radio chirped up with things like, "carries weapons," "very anti-police," "mental-health issues," and my personal favorite, "took six officers to restrain him last time out."
It's like rallying the forces to take down Godzilla, only not quite so easy.
Now, I'm 5-foot-8 in good shoes and 14 stone of mostly kebab and Guinness. The nearest unit would take at least eight minutes to get to us, which is rather a long time when someone's eating your face. This is a good time to mention that I was puppy-walking Tom, teaching him how to be a good copper, because he was pretty new. Despite backup being a ways out, retreating was not an option because the subject was so close to the kids. If you can't go big, you have to go subtle, and that was the approach I took. I put my hands in my pocket and sauntered over, calling his name. As soon as he saw the uniforms, he immediately went from zero to 60. The lad, and I could see now he wasn't much over 18, dropped his trousers to the floor and started shouting.
For those keeping score: angry violent man, no pants, children nearby. And still no guns.
The conversation went something like this:
Him: Well go on, fucking search me, then! I know you want to.
Me: Not really, squire. I was pretty much hoping not to have to take my hands out of my pockets today.
Him: You wot?
Me: You got anything naughty on you?
Him: Fucking search me, fed. Find out.
Me: Nah, your word's good enough for me. Got some folks here worried about you, John.
Him: Ain't you going to cuff me up?
Me: Hadn't planned to. You want to do anything that'll need cuffing?
Me: Well then. All settled. Let's get you to a hospital, shall we?
Charlie wouldn't confirm or deny whether they stopped for tea first.
And basically, that was that. No handcuffs, no shouting, and, most critically, no guns. John got treatment at the local mental health wing and was fine until the next time he went off his meds. Of course, I found out that the next time, officers listened too closely to their radios and went big early. John broke one of their arms and bit a finger nearly clean off.
So What Happens When Someone Does Have A Gun?
I'm lucky enough not to have had a gun pointed at me during my time in the police. I was shot at once in Glasgow before I joined up, but that's another story.
I've known a few friends who've been fired on by suspects, and on every single occasion, the shooter was brought in alive and very unhappy with his decision. One silly boy decided to evade a search by shooting at Task Force, our plainclothes cars. He fled the scene, and both he and his mates were collared by the deeply disgruntled Task Force boys. The shooter was in custody 16 hours later, and I, being a freshly-minted probationer at the time, was given the job of guarding him. One of the officers he had shot at dropped by, and they had the kind of chat you'd expect from two geezers in the pub. I only found out later that less than a day ago, one had tried to kill the other.
It's an unwritten rule that whoever threatens the life of another has to buy all the rounds.
When we have intelligence that a gun is in play, we call in Trojan, the Met's armed response units. These boys and girls are incredibly well-trained with a gun. Not so much with a pen, but that's just carping [complaining]. Trojan comprises 5,647 authorized firearms officers in the UK, with 2,800 of them in London alone. If the wheels do come off, they are exactly the people you want coming over the hill. Footage from the Lee Rigby murder shows how fast and how certain they are in a phenomenally challenging situation. For those who can't see the video (and if you can, I apologize profusely, as do all Brits, for Piers Morgan): Trojan arrive at speed, take down both targets, and go straight to lifesaving first aid in less than six seconds. Both killers survived to stand trial and be jailed for life.
I would take a small handful of highly-trained professionals over giving every copper a Glock and a few days training any day of the week. This system works for us, but it's hard to imagine the Trojan cars ever slowing down if they were working in a country where any given citizen could be armed to the teeth.
We Don't Need Guns Because The Community We Police Doesn't Have Guns
On occasion, there is an actual shooting, and then we have a bit more to do. But the active shooters and the mass shootings are so vanishingly rare as to be negligible. This is, I believe, wholly due to the fact that the UK had the tragedy of the Dunblane shooting, in which an unhinged shooter killed 16 children and one adult. Almost immediately, we banned all handguns in private hands and severely restricted sales, use, and carry. That was 20 years ago, and there hasn't been a mass shooting since. Of course, this means our Olympic performance in the shooting events has suffered, but, do you know, I'm willing to pay that price.
Have I been injured? Sure, a few times. Nothing that left me with more than a few stitches or a bit of a concussion, though. Nearly got tipped over a seventh-story balcony once when our area car driver baited a very excitable chap who, as we found out, didn't have a sense of humor.
But the vast majority of injuries on duty are from fists, feet, impacts with pavement, and, very occasionally, knives and improvised weapons. There is a certain dark joy in having a tussle for street police. Since no one is going to get shot, both cop and criminal can get into a good, healthy fight, and a hell of a lot of these will not get reported as assault on police (there's no specific crime called "resisting arrest" here).
"You are hereby charged with first-degree hittin'-like-a-wanker."
I love the job and think I always will, and I love the fact that I never strapped on a gun and never had to make that kind of decision in the heat of the moment. Guns make every decision binary -- shoot or don't shoot. They leave no room for doubt or other options, other points of view. Guns reduce very complicated decisions to the simplest of choices, and that is something I am eternally glad I didn't have to be a part of.
Charley left the Met to become a writer, and wiffles improbable nonsense on Twitter and blogs with significantly less restraint, far more profanity, and lashings upon lashings of British slang on police and policing at Encroaching He occasionally misses shouting at large violent men, but a stiff drink usually makes that feeling go away.
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