British police struggle with issue of restraint
LONDON - Four nights of arson, looting and violence erupted across England’s largest cities and left five people dead. British police didn’t fire a single shot.
It is part of a cherished culture of restraint that is now coming under unprecedented pressure, as Prime Minister David Cameron plans reforms, slashes police budgets, and humiliates homegrown talent by asking American help.
Since the early 19th Century, when legislator Robert Peel launched the world’s first modern police department in London, law enforcers in the United Kingdom have kept the peace by winning the respect of the public, not by instilling fear. They became a world-renowned icon of the capital - nicknamed “bobbies’’ in Peel’s honor.
Now sharp cuts to officer numbers driven by Britain’s austerity measures, sweeping reforms that threaten to inject politics into decision making, the fallout of England’s riots, and harsh realities of protecting the public from threats such as suicide bombers leaves the country’s fabled police in crisis.
Capping the agony, Cameron has turned for advice to William Bratton, the former police commissioner of Boston and New York and police chief of Los Angeles. He was dubbed “supercop’’ after his pioneering approach sent crime rates tumbling in those cities.
“You are at a turning point,’’ said Maurice Punch, the author of books on British policing. “What happened . . . has just accelerated that, there is now a necessity to have a major review, to take a step back and for the public to ask what kind of policing they want.’’
Officers acknowledge the debate is urgent, with London’s 2012 Olympic Games looming. But, with relations between Britain’s public and its police under strain, there remain deep divisions and uncertainty about whether Britain’s police officers are too hard or too soft.
Police were chastened by the 2005 shooting death of an innocent Brazilian electrician, mistaken by marksmen for a suicide bomber, and criticized for the death of a bystander at protests at a 2009 Group of 20 summit.
Demonstrators who marched against an increase in college tuition, and antimonarchists who opposed April’s royal wedding, have both complained that officers used excessive force in containing their protests.
When disorder erupted in London on Aug. 6 - sparked by an initially peaceful protest over a rare fatal police shooting - the response appeared hesitant.
Officers avoided confrontation as a demonstration in the north London spiraled into widespread lawlessness, and it was three days before police chiefs flooded the streets of Britain’s capital with reinforcements.
Like the Police Federation, which represents about 125,000 rank and file officers, Punch believes a Royal Commission - the most rigorous form of British government inquiry - is needed to plot a way forward.
For Punch and others, one of the pressing issues is Britain’s rare use of weapons, still its most visible sign of policing restraint.
Of Britain’s current 144,000 police officers, only 7,000 are authorized to carry guns and almost never use them - firing on just six occasions between April 2009 and March 2010.