I’ve recently become addicted to watching foreign detective series on Netflix. One set in Sweden, one in Denmark, one in Scotland, and the one I’m currently watching, set in England. I find it very interesting to compare the limits placed on the various police forces to that here in the US.
Not surprising, since much of our legal system is based on the English model, there are lots of similarities. They all seem to require search warrants, the reading of rights to the accused, and other protections that we would refer to as Constitutional rights. What has been different, though, is the availability of lethal weapons in the hands of the police, especially in the United Kingdom and the more dated the story line is.
In 1961 I spent three months in Scotland. At the time the police did not carry firearms. Equipped with nothing more than a truncheon, a helmet, and a whistle, they ventured into the dark streets to do their jobs. At the same time Andy Taylor may have been the only law enforcement officer in America who didn’t carry a sidearm. A few other nations, including Ireland, Norway, and New Zealand, don’t permit police to carry weapons. They reason, with justification, that arming the police adds to a sense that they rule by force and not consent of the people. Arming the police, it is feared, would break an almost two century relationship with the people and could increase the level of violence.
This is not to say that police in the UK are never the victims of violence. Every year there are officers who lose their lives in the line of duty. But the majority of law officers continue to believe the risk to themselves is lower than in nations, such as America, where officers are armed. Certainly arming the police in America hasn’t made them any safer as they do their jobs, and the reverse may be true.
Historically, I don’t know if America ever had unarmed police forces. Certainly since the early 1800s the cops carried guns in side holsters and the further back one goes the use of deadly force was more acceptable. As time advanced American police have become even more heavily armed. Did you notice the number of armored assault vehicles roaming the streets of Waterbury, MA after the Boston Marathon bombing? And, what large American city doesn’t have a heavily armed SWAT contingent? Our cops are better armed than ever but it hasn’t lowered the overall level of violent crimes in this nation.
I’m not calling for taking guns out of the hands of our police. I don’t think cops and civilians have had the historical relationship found in the UK and I don’t think the average American criminal would be willing to hit the pause button while they reconsider their relations with the police.
I just find it sort of amazing that since my days in Scotland, fifty years ago, the average bobby remains willing to do his or her duties with just a nightstick and a whistle. Even more amazing is that the average criminal in Scotland respects that and leaves their weapons at home.