Comment: Armed police and capital punishment will make crime worse

Ian Dunt: 'Finding the appropriate limit to police power is one of the key tasks of a civilised society.'
Ian Dunt: 'Finding the appropriate limit to police power is one of the key tasks of a civilised society.'
Ian Dunt By

With depressing predictability, the murder of police officers is usually followed by a debate on armed patrols and the return of capital punishment by the usual motley crew of Tory MPs and mid-market tabloid commentators. The tragic killing of two policewomen in Manchester yesterday has triggered the latest bout, but their proposals would put the police in greater danger, rob them of legitimacy and wreck a policing model which is the envy of the world.

Fortunately, the police themselves are the best defenders of the current system. From the officer on the beat to their representatives at Acpo and - with more complications - the Police Federation, they are opposed to being armed. As Sir Hugh Orde said this morning, it contravenes Sir Robert Peel's dictum of policing by the community for the community. This is particularly important where the community does not, as a whole, own guns. A country where the public are barred from owning weapons and the police wield them on the street appears more tyrannical than the chaos of the US, where everyone is precisely as foolish as each other.

The outpouring of sympathy for Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes following their murder yesterday is in sharp contrast with the difficult political period officers have faced in 2012. Earlier this week, Simon Harwood was forced to step down from a Met force he should never have been on for using excessive force against Ian Tomlinson. The Hillsborough report showed officers cut witness statements which were critical of police and libelled the victims of the tragedy as riotous, ticketless drunks.

It's not a coincidence that the appalling response to Hillsborough came during the harshness of Thatcher's Britain, where an increasingly political police force was being used to attack striking miners in their homes. When the police become detached from the public, they become increasingly oppressive.
The American example provides compelling evidence. In 12 states, it is illegal to record police actions, even if you are recording police misbehaviour. In many places where it is still allowed, police anyway arrest photographers. Questionable police killings, such as that of Erik Scott in Las Vegas, are often followed by glitches in nearby CCTV equipment.

Opponents of the low-key neighbourhood policing practiced in Britain argue it reflects the aspirations of a different age. Bathed in angry and unrepresentative tabloid headlines of child killers and drunken violence, they imagine they are living in an unparalleled period of crime. Not so. Official figures show that in 2010/11, firearms were involved in 11,227 recorded offences in England and Wales - the seventh consecutive annual fall. The figures include airguns and imitations guns which make up a high proportion of the recorded offences.

Critics claim that a lack of armed police encourages the importing of criminality, because the country is seen as 'light touch'. If true, they should be flocking here from across the world. Apart from the UK and New Zealand, barely any major countries continue to have unarmed police. And yet there were only 0.073 recorded intentional homicides committed with a firearm per 100,000 inhabitants in England and Wales in 2009. The figure for the United States was 3.0 - about 40 times higher - and for Germany 0.2.

The American example shows armed police do not protect officers from shootings or the public from itself. But they most certainly make the police more dangerous to the public, especially if you're black.

A University of Chicago study with the Denver police force asked a group of hundreds of officers from various states to play a game in which a series of 100 male targets appeared. Participants saw 25 armed black targets, 25 armed white targets, 25 unarmed black targets and 25 unarmed white targets. Participants were asked to press a button labelled 'shoot' if the target was armed and 'don't shoot' if they were unarmed - with 850 milliseconds to make the decision. Predictably, the officers were uniformly faster to shoot an armed black target relative to an armed white target. They were also uniformly faster to press the 'don't shoot' button for an unarmed white target relative to an unarmed black target. There is clear data which shows officers – like everyone else – respond more quickly to stereotypes. Any black youth in this country who is going through his latest stop-and-search will testify to that.
Even on a practical level, the introduction of armed police would be unwise. The enterprise would cost a spectacular amount of money, not just in weapons but training, precisely when the police can least afford it. Police suspensions would be a regular occurrence, taking officers off the street for pending internal investigations.

Running parallel to the argument for an armed police force is the idea that capital punishment would prove a deterrent for criminal behaviour. There is no data for this, but there is plenty to contradict it. Between 1976 to 1996, the US went from executing zero prisoners to executing just under 60 of them. The homicide rate remained constant.

Figures for 1996 show that US states with the death penalty had an average murder rate of 7.1 per 100,000 of population. States without had 3.6 per 100,000.

One 1980 study found murders in New York rose in the month after an execution. Similar results were found in California fifteen years later. Murders increased by ten per cent in 1952 to 1967, but when the state stopped killing people, between 1968 and 1991, the rate dropped to 4.8%

Norman Tebbit talks about the effect of the "shadow of the gallows". The effect is entirely in his head. There is no evidence for it. It is evidence of a yearning for bloody vengeance, but it is not a solution.

Most proponents of the death penalty on the airwaves today suggest it should be introduced for police killers specifically. The very idea we would start categorising adult murder victims is contrary to everything that is decent and respectable about British law.

It sometimes feels as if authoritarians view the police through rose-tinted glasses, as selfless defenders of the vulnerable; while liberals portray them as mini-Mussolinis, enforcing state law on the end of a truncheon. This reflects the complexity of a police force. It is necessary to protect us from each other, but it is also arguably the most dangerous organisation in human history. It is the tool the state uses to intrude in our lives. Finding the appropriate limit to police power is one of the key tasks of a civilised society. Britain, for all its faults, has something very good going on.

Those who challenge it threaten to replicate a European or American policing model here. They should be ignored. Instead, we should be mourning two senseless murders and feeling grateful there are so few of them.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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