August 27, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 35

Director's Corner

The test of police efficiency - what can be achieved if we agree

By Timothy Harris / Executive Director

In a year's time, the police in England and Wales discharged there weapons just three times.

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They say that travel broadens one’s mind. I was in London’s Heathrow Airport, on my way to an International Network of Street Papers conference in Glasgow, when news of Ferguson, Mo., first appeared in my Facebook feed.

Here was an image of a small town policeman, dressed in what looked like Desert Storm camo, crouched behind a machine-gun tripod. The Facebook status that accompanied the news of the police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown and the militarized police reaction to community outrage was, “This is huge.”

Since the fatal shooting of John T. Williams on Aug. 31, 2010, and the seven seconds that passed between Seattle Police officer Ian Burke’s first words —“Hey, hey, hey, put the knife down. Put the knife down” — and Williams lying dead at the intersection of Boren and Howell at 4:15 in the afternoon, my idea of “unbelievable” has expanded more than I care to say.

Given the appalling regularity of dead black, brown and red people at the hands of police and the long trend toward militarizing local law enforcement wrought by America’s 30-year “War on Drugs,” events in Ferguson are more than believable.

They were inevitable. This was going to occur. That it happened first in a small largely black Missouri town with a mostly white police force makes sense. This is where the racist American legacy leads.

As I watched BBC reports on teargas and tanks in Ferguson from a hotel room in Scotland, another story appeared regarding policing in the UK. People there are concerned with recent changes that will soon allow British police to carry pistols.

Use of deadly force has up till now been restricted in the UK to special units. The vast majority of British “Bobbies” carry no more than a nightstick. In the 12 months that ended March 31, 2013, police discharged a conventional firearm in England and Wales just three times.

That’s not a typo. Three times, down from five times the previous year.

The news from Missouri and the UK created a vertigo-inducing chasm in my brain that nearly made my head explode.

I left Glasgow to visit an old friend in the Yorkshire area of England. As we walked along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal in lovely post-industrial Bingley, conversation turned toward events in America. I described the Williams shooting in Seattle.

“Please tell me,” she asked, “that the cop is in jail?”

“No,” I said. “That almost never happens.”

As we mutually struggled to comprehend, my friend described why police with guns is such a big deal in her country.

“We have the concept of policing by consent here,” she explained. This is the notion, dating to 1829, that policing is a public partnership. To see what this is about, Google “policing by consent in the UK.”

Among the nine “Robert Peel’s Principles of Policing” you will find are these:

“To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.”

“To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.”

If my mind wasn’t blown before, it was then.

By the time I left Heathrow for Seattle, local police in Ferguson had been sidelined and replaced by the National Guard, and the issues of race in America and the use of military technology in local policing were on the table like never before.

As horrible as events in Ferguson are, the riots there are what struggle looks like, and this is what it takes to move toward sanity in America. Ferguson, Mo., was going to happen. The question we face is, “What now?”

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