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British Crime: When Bobby Gets His Gun

July 20, 1986|John Grimond | John Grimond is an assistant editor of the Economist

LONDON — The British are, on the whole, a peaceful lot and Britain is a peaceful place. That, at any rate, is the picture that British officials have been promoting in the United States in this, the summer of the stay-at-home American. Boosters have pointed out that London's murder rate (2.2 per 100,000 people) is about a tenth of New York's (20.2 per 100,000) and that more murders are committed annually in Detroit than in the whole of England and Wales.

Yet safety is relative. Britain may be safer than the United States, but it is less safe than it was. The same officials who, for an American audience, pooh-pooh tourists' fears of violence in the British streets will, for a domestic audience, lament the ever-rising crime rate. As a whole, recorded crime has nearly trebled in England and Wales in the past 20 years; between 1974 and 1984, recorded crimes of violence rose by close to 80%.

As the violent crime rate has risen, so have the calls to do something about it. One response has been to give police more and better equipment. Strong tear gas was first used in mainland Britain five years ago this month, when the Toxteth district of Liverpool exploded. Now there is talk of plastic bullets, frequently issued in Northern Ireland, being issued to police in inner-city areas likely to catch fire in the midsummer heat.

The most notable piece of new equipment, however, is the gun. The bobby on the beat is still unarmed, but some policemen, such as those assigned to guarding diplomats, habitually carry weapons. One in 10 of Britain's 120,000 police officers is now authorized to carry arms, and carry them they sometimes do: Guns were issued 2,488 times last year, and were fired seven times.

Seven is a trifling number, but one of the seven was not a trifling incident. It involved the fatal shooting by a police marksman, at a distance of nine inches, of a five-year-old child lying in bed. The policeman, charged with manslaughter, was acquitted in court earlier this month, but now faces an internal disciplinary inquiry.

The episode has reopened a debate that recurs whenever misuse of weapons by the police occurs, and it all too often does. One conclusion on which almost all can agree is that Britain's police are not adequately trained to use weapons. Another conclusion, on which there is much less agreement, is that weapons are inherently dangerous, likely to lead to accidents and should be used even less often than they are.

That some police need to be armed is not in doubt. To protect dignitaries, embassies and other terrorist targets, guns are necessary. They may even be needed in some sieges and instances of hostage-taking. But the readiness to resort to arms, as well as the resulting accidents, is one cause for the general loss of respect for British police, which is almost as striking as the rise in crime.

The British policeman used to have a moral authority that derived from a reputation for unshakeable honesty and patient courage even when dealing with dangerous criminals. His reputation is now far from what it was--not just among young blacks who complain of harassment, but also among many magistrates who no longer automatically accept police evidence as true. If the reputation for being the brave underdog gives way to that of the trigger-happy counteraggressor, respect for police will suffer even more.

And is arming the police a useful response to rising crimes of violence? It is generally accepted that if a criminal knows that police are armed, he will be more likely to carry and use a gun rather than less likely; this is the longstanding rationale behind the reluctance to arm the British police. If society is now prone to violence, arming the police will only give a twist to a vicious spiral.

In fact, there is no agreement even that British society is more prone to violence than it was. Certainly Britain has always been violent to some extent. Doubters need only look at the most violent part of the United States--the South, which is also the most Anglo-Saxon. Consider militarism, lynchings, corporal punishment, murder rates (far higher in small Southern towns than in Houston or Los Angeles); by any of these indicators the South has historically been more brutal than other parts of the United States, and it is at least plausible to attribute it to the Anglo-Saxon culture predominant there.

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