Visitors to these shores are often amazed to see that British policemen, unlike their colleagues in other Western countries, are unarmed. When the bemused tourists voice their incredulity, they quickly realise that the quaint locals seem to feel that having a police force that’s underequipped and underprotected allows them to claim some sort of moral ascendancy.
It shouldn’t. The issue is free of moral implications — it’s one of those things that ought to be settled not on principle but on empirical evidence. Yes, a country where policemen carry no weapons because they don’t need them should be envied. But a country where policemen need weapons and yet aren’t allowed to have them should be pitied.
Britain used to belong to the first category, but it no longer does. Something is clearly not working, for our crime rate leads the Western world by a comfortable margin. France, with a population similar to ours, has half the number of crimes. And the United States, whose population is five times the size of ours, has only about 40 percent more crime — your parents would have laughed in the face of anyone citing similar evidence 50 years ago.
Moreover, assaults on our policemen, including stabbings, are becoming routine. Every time that happens, the mayor of the city involved expresses ‘shock’, ‘horror’ or ‘disgust’, offering — depending on the outcome of the attack — either sympathy to the officer or condolences to his family. Seldom does one hear any outrage at seeing those young men and, increasingly, women go underequipped and outnumbered into battle against vicious crime.
One does hear outraged gasps all over the place when the government tries to do something about it, such as proposing, meekly, the use of water cannon, which ‘would be valuable in a few rare situations’. Well, we do hope that such situations would indeed be rare — water cannon aren’t really designed to combat traffic violations or overdue tax disks. Their function is to disperse crowds of feral youths doing what comes naturally to them these days: looting, rioting, setting things on fire, paralysing whole neighbourhoods. And, though still relatively rare, such situations are becoming more widespread from one year to the next.
You know, the sort things they did all over London last August, beating, maiming, torching, tossing bottles and causing £200 million worth of damage — while in many instances police officers found themselves helpless to stop the marauding mobs. Hundreds of people lost their homes or businesses or cars, and next time it’ll be thousands, but our police are neither trained nor equipped to protect such people — and nor do we have a specialised riot force similar to the French CRS. Moreover, the latent feeling dug into the country’s grassroots over decades is that it’s not owners of homes, businesses or cars who deserve our support, but the rioters. Their bestial behaviour ought to be met with increased social payments, not water cannon.
‘Policing by consent’ (as opposed to by force) is still the buzz term, as if our society hasn’t changed since 1829, when Robert Peel introduced a professional police force in London, contributing to British slang two terms based on his name: ‘bobbie’ (rather nice) and ‘peeler’ (not so nice). Most Englishmen respected the law then; those who didn’t feared it; and it was clear to all that those who neither respected nor feared it had to be prevented from doing harm to those who did. Hence the police, and hence ‘policing by consent’.
However, now that Britain in general and London in particular have become hotbeds of crime, it’s a safe assumption that such consent is either muted or in many cases nonexistent. The ostrich solution to the problem won’t work — that’s bleeding obvious, as in the blood of riot victims and stabbed or ‘bottled’ constables. Nor will the situation be helped by insisting that policing by consent still has any other than the broadest and vaguest meaning (policing in the West is always by consent in the sense that the government, responsible for policing, governs by consent).
The issue, as I’ve suggested, is purely pragamatic. The task for the police is to prevent riots or, barring that, to minimise the damage they do. The size, training and equipment of the police force must be adequate to achieving that aim, for this aim must be achieved at all costs. As simple as that.
If it takes more policemen, fine. If it takes a specialised riot unit, excellent. If it takes water cannon, splendid. If it takes tasers, tear gas or — I can see the sky opening and the lightning coming down to smite me — firearms loaded with live rounds, then that’s what has to be done. I’d like to believe that there are enough people in Britain who possess more expertise than I do, or any other layman does, to assess the technical means commensurate with the tactical requirements. But the will to do what it takes has to come from the government that supposedly acts in the public’s interests.
It’s within those circles that the will is less pronounced than among the people at large, especially those who live in areas already devastated by riots or in danger of being so devastated next time. Witness Jenny Jones, who is a member of London’s Police and Crime Committee and the Green candidate hoping to drive Boris Johnson from his mayoral office. According to Miss Jones, equipping the police with water cannon is ‘a step in the wrong direction’ as it would constitute ‘dangerous escalation of police tactics.’
Really, Jenny. It’s not police tactics that are dangerous, it’s the mob’s bestial cravings. And we’re not talking machineguns and rocket launchers here — surely a bit of squirting water has to be justified if it can prevent what happened in Tottenham last August? Look at it this way: this would give many rioters a much needed shower, and surely we’re all in favour of responsible hygiene?
As I said, I don’t consider myself an expert on the specific techniques required to do what needs doing. Neither, one suspects, is Miss Jones. Where we differ is that I believe in public order, and she believes in mouthing meaningless bien-pensant clichés. Well, the time for those has passed. We’re entering — have already entered — troubled times, and the sooner we realise this the better. And when we do, we’ll know that police officers already have plenty of courage and determination. What they lack is the proper tools of their trade, and it’s our job to provide those.
Sounds logical, doesn’t it? Alas, when it comes to law enforcement, Bob’s never your uncle, and Fanny is never, ever your aunt. But Jenny is still the Green candidate for mayor of London.