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Arms and the policeman...
IT’S been a time for revelations, albeit slightly curious ones, as the matters being revealed are undoubtedly important and need public airing, but are not really all that surprising.
I have in mind the revelations that we are back in recession, that the rich are nonetheless getting richer, that all our recent governments have sucked up horribly to the Murdoch media empire and that inflation has apparently not only applied in the economy but also to A-levels grades (according to the head of Ofqual, who previously denied such a phenomenon existed).
Another revelation emerged from an “armed siege” in central London. Some of our national media focused on a picture of a police officer in paramilitary gear, with a mask obscuring most of his face, and sporting two automatic pistols and an assault rifle. Their point seemed, in essence, to be: “Look at what’s happened to the traditional British bobby.”
My first reaction was to think: “Where have you been for the last few decades?” Even in the relative calm of North Yorkshire, it’s not that unusual to see images of officers in uniforms modelled on US SWAT teams, with the characteristic dark-blue baseball caps, and hefting Heckler and Koch assault rifles.
But, like the other revelations, it’s still an issue worth considering. Because I fear some sections of our police may be turning into something very different from the “policing by consent”, community-based model that senior officers were still talking about even at the height of last year’s riots.
I have been overseas and seen, for example, American cops armed to the teeth, and been in military bases where people were lugging all sorts of lethal hardware around as they went to get their lunch.
Yet there’s something different about seeing British police with guns. Is it just our traditional stereotype of the unarmed Dixon Of Dock Green figure, or is it partly down to the attitude of the officers themselves when they get their flak jackets on? I can’t help thinking some of them absolutely love it.
It’s a little thing, but I don’t recall being “hard stared” by foreign cops in the manner of two gun-toting officers I encountered at Heathrow who looked like they thought they were in an action movie.
Then there was the situation a few years ago when driving on a back road between Selby and York, and seeing a police car partially blocking the road and – much more disturbingly – a man hiding near the back of the car with a gun covering the area I would have to drive through.
I guessed from his baseball cap and the nearby police car that he was probably on the side of law’n’order, and wondered (correctly, as it happened) if this was some kind of exercise. With no helpful signs from the armed officer about what to do – a little wave or nod would have been nice – I edged past and was very relieved to get safely on my way.
Little things, but not conducive to community policing by consent.
On the other hand, we can’t expect officers to tackle armed criminals or terrorists without the proper means. And, sadly, making them look less like special forces operatives probably isn’t the answer.
It’s probably better they’re in distinctive garb rather than the Sweeney-style everyday clothing once used, for example by police markmen in North Yorkshire in the early 1980s.
If, for example, the armed man I saw at the roadside had been in plain clothes and carrying a pump-action shotgun, I might have thought he was one of the bad guys and panicked – with potentially dire consequences.
One possible answer, albeit a controversial one, might be to split off the armed police function from the community-based cops.
It may not solve all the problems, but if we’re going to have paramilitary-style police on our streets we might as well be upfront about it and create a specialist force with its own head to take responsibility for its actions and ethos, instead of pretending George Dixon remains the role model.