Arming the police would be a terrible mistake

Posted on September 19, 2012

Yesterday’s news from Manchester was monstrous – two police officers, Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone, were apparently lured to a house by a false 999 call, and then brutally murdered in a gun and grenade attack.

Any decent person would be horrified at this crime. These were two officers who worked to protect people, were not carrying any weapons with which to shoot back and were, it seems, killed in cold blood.

Inevitably, a debate has started about whether it could have been prevented. Just as inevitably, there are now calls for all police officers to be armed as a matter of course. This has been a perennial topic for debate throughout the history of the British police, which remains one of the few forces in the world whose officers do not routinely carry guns.

It’s understandable why such proposals are being put forward. Civilised people will always feel revulsion at the idea of people being shot without the ability to shoot back. However, giving the police guns would be a terrible mistake.

For a start, we should consider the Manchester case that reignited the debate. The full facts are not yet known – indeed we may well not know more until (or unless) more is reported at a trial or an inquest. There is no guarantee whatsoever, though, that had PCs Hughes and Bone been carrying guns the outcome would have been any different. In the United States, where law enforcement officers carry guns every day, there have been 33 fatalities this year already.

What we do know is that the alleged killer, Dale Cregan, was out on bail at the time, having been questioned on suspicion of involvement in at least one previous murder. It seems the system lost track of him and he disappeared, only to resurface in this horrific way.

There is always an emotional challenge in cases like this. The heartbreaking detail and personal photographs that are spread across the newspapers make us want to do something to prevent it happening again. The photos we don’t see, though, are those of the people who would die accidentally if the police were armed. We should force ourselves to remember them – those who are alive today precisely because the police don’t have guns – when making any decision.

This is not a flight of fancy, or a supposition based on guesswork. Where police forces arm all their officers, innocent people get shot.

Take, for example, the Empire State Building shooting last month. A gunman murdered a former colleague in the street, and when police in turn shot him they also wounded nine passers-by who were caught in the crossfire.

Or consider the case of Renaldo Cuevas, a shop worker who was accidentally shot by a police officer two weeks ago while trying to escape from a robbery at the bodega in the Bronx where he worked.

These cases weren’t down to malice, and I’m not spinning any conspiracy theories – but through pure accident, confusion or other factors, innocent civilians were wounded or killed.

The killings of Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone were a disgusting crime, and we should look at how they could have been avoided (by asking how Cregan was able to go on the run while on bail over an extremely serious crime, perhaps) – but if we rush into arming the police, other innocents will die as a result. That would not be a fitting memorial.

Crime mapping – power to the people

Posted on February 03, 2011

Finally – after years of arguments, promises and u-turns on the part of both Labour and the Conservatives – the Government has introduced crime mapping right across the country at www.police.uk.

Anyone who doubted that there was an interest among the public in finding out what crimes are committed in their neighbourhoods was immediately given a firm slap round the chops by the fact that the site received so much traffic it has at times struggled to deal with it all. At its peak it was getting 18 million hits an hour – a remarkable number.

Obviously, the Guardian chose to lead on the fact it crashed without reflecting on the fact that this proved what huge demand there is out there for this kind of transparency.

I’m personally delighted about crime mapping coming to the UK because it has been a massive hobby horse of mine in recent years. I first wrote about it for the TPA almost 3 years ago and since then I’ve met ministers, spoken at the Police Federation conference, addressed the Association of Chief Police Officers and generally banged the drum for this idea endlessly – not always making myself popular, it must be said.

This is a genuinely exciting reform. For the first time, everyone has the right to know what the real picture is of reported crime in a given area. That helps people moving house, scrutinising police performance and communicating with their MP.

It’s still just the start of the transparency and accountability revolution, though.

Giving people this information is a great start, but there’s plenty more to give. Other police forces are apparently experimenting with ways to provide even more data in greater accuracy and more informative formats. Yvette Cooper has called for full transparency on police numbers, which I can’t see a problem with. Ideally in my view each crime on the map would also be updated when it is either solved and prosecuted or shelved into a cold file. The possibilities are myriad.

Once you’ve given people information, you should also give them the power to do something with it, too. Now people are being given some data about how effective or ineffective their local police are, it is high time they were given the right to elect, scrutinise and – if necessary – sack the people in charge of the force.

The internet makes it possible for us to be given access to all that state data which our public employees compile about all of us in our name and at our expense. The digital revolution, if properly applied, can be a real revolution – handing power from hidden officials in back offices to the people. Crime mapping is an early and crucial step on that road to empowerment.

The hidden policing message: are PCSOs for the high jump?

Posted on September 23, 2010

Sir Dennis O’Connor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, has been getting a lot of media attention today for his broadside against the failings of modern policing. The main focus has been on his call for the police to “reclaim the streets” from yobs and to take low-level continuous offending more seriously.

It turns out – surprise, surprise – that we need police on the streets arresting criminals, backed up by courts that actually hand out tough punishments. That’s a view you could hear in any pub in the land, but is all too rarely espoused by anyone with any power.

What everyone seems to have missed so far, though, is his thinly veiled attack on PCSOs.

In his interview on the Today Programme this morning he emphasised a key theme – that to beat crime and take back the streets “it’s not just about [police] presence, it’s the presence of control”.

In the world of policing theory and policy, this is a direct attack on the thinking that lay behind the creation of PCSOs. Full police officers – the argument went – with a warrant card, training and full pension, are too expensive. Supposedly the job could be done just as well by creating a job that didn’t hold the same powers or cost as much but would be a visible presence. In short, the idea behind PCSOs was explicitly that presence alone was the most important thing.

It’s pretty clear now that that was a mistake. It is the warrant card in the officer’s pocket that actually arrests criminals, not the dayglo jacket – and PCSOs had the latter but not the former. If Sir Dennis’s thinking is spreading among senior police officers, the days of the PCSO could be numbered.