The recent shooting of Walter Scott in the back has made the news not just in South Carolina but around the world and is the latest case of police in the United States seemingly having a low regard for people of a certain colour and for having itchy trigger fingers in general. I’ve been meaning to write something similar many times before but have always waited as sadly it is seemingly inevitable that one doesn’t have to wait long before similar events happen time and again.
Around 40% of my readers are in the United States and I know people are of all races and political persuasions and backgrounds so what I’m writing is just my personal opinion having seen nearly 40 years of largely unwarranted police brutality on the news from the USA.
Personally I am against the British Police being armed as are most people in this country though conversely I do think they deserve more respect from politicians and the public. In many ways the change from police giving a loudmouth drunk a slap round the head with a truncheon to the situation where yobs can be abusive with impunity as police are afraid to touch anyone due to fear of prosecution is a sign of much of what is wrong with the country at present but it doesn’t mean I think the Police have a right to kill anyone.
I think the Police have a near impossible job in a society where they aren’t respected by the minority of the public who happen to generally be the ones who transgress the law. In the riots of 2011 following the death of Mark Duggan it was noticeable that for several nights the rioting in London and other major cities got progressively worse as the police took a low-key approach. Whilst many advocated sending the SAS out for a night and laying waste to the criminal youths it was notable that in the city of Manchester where some police took an old-fashioned approach confronting violence with violence, the rioting there quickly petered out in the city as it did elsewhere across the nation once the police were told to toughen up.
As with the United States there are occasional cases where police who fail to live up to the high standards expected of them are seemingly protected from their own criminal acts such as the death of Ian Tomlinson who was innocently walking down the street with his hands in his pockets when he was hit by a police officer wielding a truncheon before the same officer savagely pushed him to the ground. The Policeman involved, Simon Harwood, was eventually dismissed from the force and though the incident seemed to clearly be the cause of the death of Ian Tomlinson just a few minutes later, the charge of Manslaughter against the officer was dismissed something that most people feel would not have been the case if the perpetrator hadn’t been in the Police.
It’s precisely these instances are so rare that they stand out and we know that we can all depend and need the police. When it comes to the use of fire-arms it is likely that there are few better trained or responsible in the world. In the four years to 2012 the British police fired just 18 times with 9 fatalities. Aside from Ireland and New Zealand our Police are the only ones who aren’t routinely armed.
We do have authorised fire-arms officers and in 2011/12 they were involved in over 12,000 operations but there were only 2 fatalities. Each time a gun is discharged there is a huge investigation put on all sides and the event becomes almost a national scandal and in 2012/13 the police did not fire a single bullet in the U.K.
“The officers are subject to immense scrutiny and pressure is placed on them and their colleagues on how they explain it,” said Mark Williams, chairman of the PFOA. “The bottom line is, everything they did has to be justified by law.”
And to highlight how rare it is for a British police officer to actually open fire, Mr Williams told Channel 4 News: “I carried a firearm for five years in London, and I never had to fire it. Actually firing a weapon is very rare. The vast majority of them have never fired a weapon.
“No firearms officer wants to shoot someone. It’s a last resort.” He argues that British police officers have the best firearms training in Europe, precisely because the force is unarmed as a matter of course.
Of course much is dependent on the culture of the country. in 2012 0.00013 per cent of the US population were shot dead by the police, compared to just 0.0000035 per cent in the UK but then the USA has much higher public gun ownership and the homicide rates are roughly four times greater too. Still,a person in Britain is about 100 times less likely to be shot by their own police than a person in the United States. South Africa is even worse as for every police caused fatality per 100,000 people in the UK is just 1 and in the USA 4.7, in South Africa it is over 30.
In my opinion regardless of the prevailing laws and policies, it can never be right for the police to shoot anyone if there is a way to avoid doing so. Shooting someone who is running away in the back is just plain wrong, unloading several rounds just makes him cold-blooded and if a police officer in any country gets so unsettled by have someone running away from them that they have to do that then maybe they should look for another job. That goes for all the other recent incidents of mostly black individuals being shot or even choked to death by the police.
The police should be there to make sure if a law has been broken that they get the individual to court so that the person who is innocent until proven guilty has had their opportunity to speak their case. If individuals are getting shot because there is a perception that certain classes or colours are less worthy than others then it is the responsibility of the government and society to make sure that the police change their perceptions but also that the citizens learn how to behave and if there are social factors that keep coming up then these should be tackled at source.
Police in the United States are actually trained to shoot to kill by aiming at the chest area as this is deemed the most likely way to stop an imminent threat. An officer can only shoot at a suspect who poses a life-threatening risk to the officer or members of the public. Ironically it is argued by some that introducing a shoot to injury police in the USA would not only open up forces to increased mitigation but also increase the levels of police shootings as they would feel even more free to take the risk of shooting people. Lawmakers have in the past tried to legislate to end the shoot-to-kill policy but have always been defeated.
Perhaps the real problem is that the law states that force has to be objectively reasonable but it would seem what is objectively reasonable to some police officers is certainly not many in the wider society feel.
While it must be true that it is harder to hit an individual in non-fatal areas, the policy of shooting to kill even under the most minor situations seems wrong to me. In London after soldier Lee Rigby was murdered by Islamic Extremists, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to shoot them dead but even as they charged police, they were shot but not with intent to kill them and indeed they recovered to go on trial and serve their punishment. This stands in contrast to 25 year old Kajieme Powell in St. Louis who was shot dead for behaving erratically with a knife near police. Surely this means one of the following, that with sufficient training Police can shoot with a minimum force tactic or that American Police already have this training but value life less and see themselves more in the role of an enforcer than public servant.
A recent survey into police in Cleveland, Ohio has revealed that police have legitimately shot criminals but also those following police instructions to surrender and even innocent victims fleeing from a dangerous crime area. Surely in this hi-tech era there must be ways for progress to be made. If the Police and by extension the State doesn’t value life then how can everyone else be expected to? Surely a minimum force requirement is something that should be aimed for and if police elsewhere manage not to generally avoid shooting people for no good reason then maybe training needs to be improved too.
It’s not just shootings, even just overnight I woke to finish this post to see that 8 police in California kicked a man for 2 minutes for allegedly stealing a horse. This coming 25 years after Rodney King was repeatedly beaten which even then was an instance of police brutality which shocked the rest of the Western world. Obviously not much has been learned.
Perhaps the quasi militarisation of some police forces simply attracts the wrong sort of person and it is interesting how in some countries police officers have a certain pretentiousness about them. Every time I visit Paris it is hard not to notice the police strutting round as if they are the most important people on the planet.
I remember on one occasion myself driving to work at 6.20am one dark morning and car drew level with me. It was obvious they were in the wrong lane for where they wanted to go and they had their music on loud so I didn’t even bother looking at them, presuming them to be the usual lowlife who do such things. When the traffic lights changed I beat them off the mark and much to their fury the car in the wrong lane sounded its horn and then tailgated me for 100 yards before I realised that the idiot in question had been a police officer. Fortunately for me at no point did I exceed the speed limit and for about 2 miles round winding urban streets I was followed by the car who was obviously eager for me to go too far, not indicate when turning or for any other minor motoring infringement before he turned back as I headed out of his jurisdiction. Luckily he is just one of two negative contacts I have had with police compared to hundreds of positive ones not including the several serving and retired police whom I am friends with.
There are bad apples in every profession and in every country but the role of the police is such that we expect and deserve only the best from them. Similarly they should be given greater respect for the impossible job that they do but it should be remembered that the role of the police is to protect us and to allow the courts and jury to decide upon an individual’s guilty status. By murdering people or unduly beating them up means they are lowering the status of society generally the very rights and civilisation that they are their to uphold. Even if some did commit a petty crime their punishment is unlikely to merit death and if it does it should be a judge who decides. Walter Scott may or may not have committed crimes but unlike the police officer who apprehended him, he was not a murderer. Surely it is better to have a handful of rogue individuals than starting off with training and a policy of shoot to kill?