Empowering the Police | Dan Mikhaylov
22nd March has gone down in Britain’s history as sorrowful and lacklustre. The 2017 Westminster attack occurred on that day, taking the lives of five and injuring another 49 individuals. Its perpetrator, Khalid Masood, was only prevented from wreaking further havoc by the arrival of armed police officers on the scene: they fired at him thrice and made him collapse to the ground.
As thankful as we are to them, it is doleful that among the casualties was a policeman, whose duty should have been to nip the attack in the bud. For this daunting task, Keith Palmer possessed but a baton and a taser, his ability to save the ordinary people around him severely undermined. Unprotected and unable to eliminate the extremist on his own, he sacrificed his life. Palmer wrestled Masood, but failing to bring him down, tripped, and suffered several mortal wounds.
What prima facie seems a heroic act, on closer inspection, reveals the powerlessness of our law enforcement. Notwithstanding rising gang violence, police in England and Wales remains under-funded and under-armed. Rather than proactively confronting iniquitous behaviour on the streets, those whom we entrust with our security, are instructed to follow the selfsame procedures as civilians – hide behind a corner and call support.
The shortage of human resources has no doubt incentivised this lamentable connivance. Worse still, during the recent upsurge of vandalism, the police struggled to contain, let alone to placate the BLM demonstrators, Churchill’s statue being just one victim of this. Whilst characteristically British, the traditional “bobby on the beat” notion has arguably become outdated. A modern police force requires modern mechanisms to deal with modern threats. What the British police needs the most is empowerment.
Police empowerment must be our priority, given the UK’s grim crime statistics. In 2019, there were 43,516 registered instances of knife crime, 6,684 crimes involving firearms, and 85,736 robberies; these show increases of 8%, 3%, and 11% since 2018 respectively, and cannot be explained as mere fluctuations. In fact, knife crime has risen by 80% in the past five years, much of it attributed to the proliferation of criminal gangs. Attackers have grown more aggressive, especially when using potentially lethal weapons. Likewise, we are living in an unprecedented time, when London, Manchester, and other cities in Britain suffer from terrorist attacks. Understandably, all these trends should not, and frankly cannot, go unnoticed.
How should we bolster our law enforcement’s capacity to address these underlying perils? Certainly, it is impossible to discuss all the available options in such a short article, and further discourse is outright essential, if we want this pledge to materialise in coherent, auspicious legislation. It is also noteworthy that the Johnson government has made steps towards empowering our guardians of law and order. Last year, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced the decision to curtail stop-and-search restrictions, for instance. The Prime Minister has also promised to add 20,000 police jobs in England and Wales. Still, two other important policies should be on the table: arming the police and restoring its powers vis-à-vis protestors.
The latter is straightforward. The 1986 Public Order Act authorises the use of police force to place restrictions on protests and prohibit those who threaten to disrupt the public order; and yet, following criticisms, the police now employs the presumption of peaceful protests and uses force as the absolute last resort. Certainly, this is a noble correction, on paper at least. In practice, however, it has led to officers giving way to the desecration of monuments and the looting of private property, since many law using force on the protesters may have grave legal or professional repercussions on them. Herein, I believe that the government must further delineate the difference between peaceful protests and those that are detrimental to the public order.
The former point is much more contentious, not least because our society has never interacted with an armed police force. This is why some still confide in unarmed policing, despite recent polls unequivocally pointing to many officers approving having a gun with them on a permanent basis.
The need is there, after all. England and Wales only possess 7,000 firearms specialists out of the 123,000 currently employed officers. Realistically, the percentage of those able to react to significant national security threats or police our streets is lower. Some officers belong to the Ministry of Defence Police and the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, and are tasked with guarding sites of national importance, whereas the Metropolitan Police must keep a watchful eye on the Prime Minister. Finally, others could be on leave or teaching junior officers how to handle firearms, leaving our society practically defenceless.
Moreover, there is data to support this policy’s implementation. In 2003, Bristol saw the inaugural introduction of armed police units in its inner-city areas, and the presence of police officers not routinely armed, sufficed to defuse gang tensions and reduce the local crime rates. Evidence from Northern Ireland, where the police holds personal protection weapons, substantiates this.. A criminology professor at Queen’s University Belfast John Topping has conducted a study, concluding that one is 33% less likely to fall victim to a crime in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales. The former has not even registered an upsurge in knife crime unlike most of the UK.
Empowering the police has more to it than just combating crime; by enabling police officers to protect themselves on the job, we would incentivise them to be more proactive in defending the law. Policing should be about maintaining order, and without the right tools for this, we risk signalling to criminals and extremists that Britain is weak and vulnerable. Hardly anyone would want to live in such a state, whence empowering the police constitutes an important aspect of Britain’s adjustment to the threats of the twenty-first century.