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.

The sad truth about the “peace” in Northern Ireland

Posted on April 06, 2011

Northern Ireland has been transformed in the last decade. When I last visited Belfast, just over a year ago, I was struck by how much the city centre resembled the newly revived post-industrial city centres of Newcastle, Sheffield and Manchester. But despite all the spin, the glossy veneer still conceals some uncomfortable truths.

We on the UK mainland were shocked when PC Ronan Kerr of the PSNI was killed by a bomb in his car in Omagh on Saturday. Rightly so – it was a shocking and sickening act of murder perpetrated by truly evil people.

The character of much of the shock expressed was very much along the lines of “how could this happen now that we have peace in Northern Ireland?” The simple and sad truth is that those of us outside Ulster are routinely misled by politicians and the media about what the situation is really like. It is true that things are far better than they were when the Troubles were at their height, and that the Peace Process, with its attendant ceasefire by the Provos, UVF etc has made people much safer.

But – and it is a massive but – terrorism has never stopped. Shootings, bombings and beatings have remained a regular occurrence, as have failed attacks.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland publishes regular statistics on what they call the “Security Situation”. The latest data release shows that from 1st April 2010 up until the end of February 2011 there were:

68 shooting incidents (this includes when the security forces open fire)

30 casualties caused by paramilitary-style shootings

96 bombing incidents, involving 98 bombs (which includes defusings, but not hoaxes)

48 casualties caused by “paramilitary-style assaults” (ie beatings)

85 firearms found

Over 2.72 kg of explosives found

Call it what you like, but that is far from a state of “peace”. If a situation like this arose from nothing in, say, Manchester, then we would view it as a serious and active terrorist movement.

Of course, by contrast to what went before things are a lot better. The reasons for the cheery consensus that Northern Irish terrorism is a solved problem are understandable – everyone wants it to be solved for good, but just pretending that it is helps nobody.

PC Ronan Kerr’s murder should be a wake-up call that this issue demands all our attention, and cannot be swept under the carpet.

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.

When did owning a Porsche become a crime?

Posted on August 17, 2010

Thanks to the prominence of the offender and the bizarre nature of his excuse, cricketer Graeme Swann is all over the news today for his alleged drink driving.

Of course he was wrong to go driving whilst over the limit, but what caught my eye was why he was pulled over by police in the first place. It wasn’t because his car was swerving across the road, or had jumped a red light, oh no:

Two officers, Pc Steven Denniss and Pc Caroline Voce, were travelling in a marked Volvo in the early hours of 2 April when they spotted Mr Swann’s Porsche.

They decided to pull him over in Loughborough Road because he was driving a high-performance car in an area where there had been a spate of burglaries.

What? When did it become a legitimate reason for the police to stop someone purely because they dared to drive a nice car?

In this case, they seem to have caught someone doing something wrong – but entirely by accident. How many totally innocent people have been stopped “on suspicion of having a nice motor”?