Bang Bang! You’re Not Dead

By Clancy Sigal

I hold no special brief for the British police at whose hands and batons I’ve split a lip or two.   But here in Los Angeles, where our trimly athletic LAPD shoots fewer civilians than, say, in Albuquerque or Baltimore, we’re seeing a spike in “he was reaching into his waist band” or “coming at me with a knife (or rock).”  Police in Gardena, LA, shot two unarmed Hispanics looking for their stolen bike, one died (you can see the police-camera video on; a few days ago police in the beach city of Venice shot and killed a homeless guy who allegedly had a knife; police in Los Feliz, LA, shot an unarmed jogger who approached them.  The dead guys tend to be black, brown or homeless.  It’s a weekly sometimes daily occurrence.  The city has paid victims’ families over $20m in recent years.

From the WashPost and the UK Independent, I’ve put together one or two factoids for perspective.

  • Armed police in England and Wales only fired their weapons twice during 14,864 operations in 2013-14.  That’s TWICE in ONE year.
  • Only one person has been killed by armed police in England and Wales in the last four years, and one of them, near my old neighborhood, sparked four days of riots.
  • In the first 24 days of 2015, American police killed more people than police in England and Wales have killed in 24 years.   Read that sentence again.
  • The number of police shootings in England and Wales has fallen consistently over the last few years.
  • There are 5,875 specially-trained armed police in England and Wales (see below), but their numbers have fallen in recent years In 2011 police fired weapons six times.
  • In 2013, 30 U.S. officers were fatally shot while on duty in America where crazy people or anyone with a grudge can get a gun NQA, no questions asked.
  • We are five times the size of Britain.  However, when population differences are taken into account, people in the USA are around 100 times more likely to be shot by the police than British people are.

What can US cops learn from Britain’s gunless police?

  1. A British cop who applies for a gun first must walk the beat unarmed for years.
  2. Then there is the rigorous selection process — an unforgiving complement of fitness tests, psychological appraisals and marksmanship exams.
  3. Finally, there is the training, which involves endless drilling on even the most routine scenarios.

Lightly armed Britain might seem an unorthodox place to look for solutions to our plague of police shootings. But is there a blueprint here?

  • In Britain handguns and assault rifles [are] effectively banned.
  • Like the United States, Britain is large, urbanized, democratic and diverse. Police have to reckon with gang violence, organized crime and Islamist extremists, all amid persistent allegations that they unfairly target minority communities.
  • Other police forces facing similar problems also forego firearms including New Zealand, Iceland, Ireland and Norway.
  • Sir Peter Fahy, chief of the Greater Manchester Police, commands 6,700 officers — just 209 of whom are armed. Those authorized to carry guns, he says, face extremely tight protocols governing when they can be deployed and under what circumstances they can fire. Shooting at moving vehicles, at people brandishing knives and at suspects fleeing a scene are all strictly forbidden except under extreme circumstances.
  • Officers must serve for years before they can apply to carry a gun, and the selection of those deemed worthy is intensely competitive.
  • All officers, he said, are taught to back away from any situation that might otherwise escalate and to not feel that they have to “win” every confrontation.
  • “I constantly remind our officers that their best weapon is their mouth,” he said. “Your first consideration is, ‘Can you talk this through? Can you buy yourself time?’ ”

When Mark Williams applied to be a firearms officer in 1995, he was among a group of 16 who started the grueling regimen of physical and psychological trials. Three made it.

Williams was among them, but that wasn’t the end of the testing. He and his fellow firearms officers faced regular drills challenging them to find creative ways out of confrontations and spent long nights at the shooting range to upgrade their marksmanship.

Sir Denis O’Connor, a former police chief, says cops here…know that someone is always looking over their shoulder.

“The cops here tend to fear getting it wrong and being criticized by a judge,” he said. “Cops in the U.S. fear getting shot. Those are two very different worlds.”Φ

Clancy Sigal, is a screenwriter and novelist in Los Angeles. Chicago-born, he has worked precincts for Democratic candidates since his teens. He emigrated to the UK during what David Caute calls the ‘Great Fear’ and returned to America after the 1984 miners’ strike. He is a reformed Fleet Street journalist.

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