Guest Factor: Across the pond

A retired UK cop weighs in on US policing

The Graham Factor welcomes submissions from active and retired police officers. This week’s Guest Factor features an interview with John Hicks1 who retired from policing in England and Wales in 2012 after 30 years of service, and who has also visited the United States to study police practices here. My questions are in bold, followed by his answers. - Graham

People in the US love to compare American police to police in the United Kingdom, because UK police are mostly unarmed. Do you think UK police should be armed?

It is not widely known, even amongst British people, that patrol officers in the Metropolitan Police (the force that polices London) would routinely carry a revolver on night shift up until the Second World War. It was still common for elite squads, like the Flying Squad, a unit that targeted armed robbers, to carry firearms when necessary well into the 1970s. It took a series of accidents, where innocent members of the public were killed or injured, in the 1980s for this to be forbidden. From that time on firearms training became very rigorous and a very small number of officers were authorised to carry firearms when the need arose. So stringent was the training that it was not unusual for 85% of officers to fail the qualifying course.

From the 1990s Armed Response Vehicles (ARVs) routinely patrolled in all force areas. My own force, that covers over 1,000 square miles has 2 or 3 such vehicles on duty at all times. Major urban areas such as London, Birmingham or Manchester will have a considerably greater number.

I do not believe that British police officers should be routinely armed. Policing in Britain and the United States have many similarities, but also many dissimilarities. The main dissimilarity is in the high number of firearms in the United States, in both lawful and unlawful possession. Private firearm possession in the UK is rare.

I believe that it is estimated that there are 350 million firearms in the United States. With the exception of television dramas most British people will never see a firearm in their life. After the Dunblane Massacre in 1996, when a gunman killed 16 pupils and a teacher at a school in Scotland, all public possession of handguns was banned in the UK. Consequently, the main lethal threat faced by British police are bladed weapons, not firearms.

The presence of a firearm must, I believe, colour the interaction between US police officers and the public. This firearm is most usually in the possession of the officer. British police officers constantly become involved in wrestling matches with offenders that don’t wish to be arrested. These contests usually end up with no worse injuries than cuts or bruises to either party. American officers do not have this luxury. Any such grappling could result in the offender taking the officer’s weapon and the killing of him or her. The risk for British officers from firearms is low.

Given what you know about the proliferation of firearms in the US, would you have policed the US unarmed?

Given the prevalence of firearms in the United States I would say that the routine police carrying of firearms is essential. I understand that one of the candidates for the New York City Mayoralty, Maya Wiley, has hinted that she might consider disarming the NYPD. This would clearly be folly and would result, I’m sure, in the whole NYPD resigning en masse.

Arguments could be made that the US should reduce the number of weapons in circulation. President Biden has, I believe, hinted that he would like to see that happen. But any tampering with the Second Amendment would be probably resisted, perhaps violently resisted, and would not make a jot of difference to the possession of firearms by criminals.

I understand UK police have armed response units. Without compromising operational security, what’s the response time for those units if needed? U.S. police have an average response time of 5-8 minutes

This really depends on the type of force concerned. As I’ve said my own force has a large population centre at the eastern edge, but is largely rural in character. In the Metropolitan police area the average response time for an Armed Response Vehicle is 8 minutes. In rural forces this time may be considerably greater.

In the 2017 terrorist attack on London Bridge and the Borough Market, in which 8 people were killed and 48 injured by terrorists with knives, the City of London Police ARVs responded within 8 minutes and shot all three terrorists dead. To put police use of firearms in the UK into context in the year of this attack police in England and Wales2 discharged a firearm operationally only 8 times.

Police in the UK almost never kill anybody, which I’m told is the big problem in the US, and yet I’ve seen there is no shortage of criticism from the left aimed at police in the UK. Similarly, many of the problems in the American policing dynamic are driven by racial issues here that go back centuries. The UK obviously has a very different history and culture, and yet there were Black Lives Matter protests in London last summer. Why is that? 

Since 2003 the number of people shot and killed by police in England and Wales has never rose above 6 per year. In 2012-13 and 2013-2014 the number was zero. It’s therefore mystifying as to why BLM marchers in London last year were chanting “Hands up don’t shoot,” to officers accompanying them who were actually unarmed. I think the reason for this is in the nature of Critical Race Theory that underwrites the BLM philosophy.

CRT doesn’t conform to the scientific method in that its conclusions can’t be falsified. CRT states as a given fact that the reason black people are disadvantaged in a society is due to white supremacy. Unlike proper scientific method, where a hypothesis is made and then evidence is sought to confirm or deny this hypothesis, CRT has already reached a conclusion, that any negative life outcome for a black person must be attributed to white supremacy. The advocate of CRT must therefore seek evidence for that assertion and if there is none conclude that this is itself due to white supremacy.

Unfortunately, British BLM supporters have taken their cue from those in the United States and have already concluded that British police are agents of white supremacy. There is no logic being applied in this conclusion, but that doesn’t seem to matter. They have been reinforced in this illogical belief by top sportsmen taking the knee before sporting events and multi-national concerns affirming their support for BLM. Even established institutions like the National Trust, a body that looks after Britain’s historic buildings, has vowed to de-colonise its buildings, works of art and statues. There seems to be no end to this stupidity.

Incidentally, the left seems to have no problem with police when they are reinforcing the draconian lockdown regulations that pertain in Britain, harassing people going about their lawful business, prohibiting public gatherings and fining small business people for simply attempting to make a living. This recent aspect of British policing is very troubling to me. British police operate with the general consent of the public. If this consent is denied due to overzealous enforcement of illiberal regulations, this consent may be withdrawn. 

How long does police basic training in the UK last? Who runs the training program?

Officers used to be trained at regional training centres, with forces pooling resources to train a group of personnel from each force. In 1982 I spent ten weeks at such a centre, this was extended during the eighties to fourteen weeks. Back in their home force a probationer constable would spend four weeks on the street with a tutor constable, and then effectively be on their own. The services of a probationer constable can be dispensed with any time in the first two years of their service.

This (very good) system was dispensed with in the early 2000s and all forces now train in house. Most probationers don’t patrol on their own for a year. There has been a recent requirement for all recruits to have a university degree. In my opinion, this is a ridiculous requirement. I have a university degree but this is no way helped me to become an efficient police officer. The best street officers I ever worked with had no degrees. They were often ex-servicemen or had worked in other public-facing professions before applying to be a police officer and this gave them the people skills essential to be a good street officer. I understand from current officers that the requirement for a degree has had an adverse effect, in that most graduates joining now have an expectation that they will quickly rise to senior rank, an expectation that cannot be fulfilled in all cases for obvious reasons. This has led to disillusionment and a retention problem.

I’ve seen a lot of videos of UK police officers using batons in a way I think is very effective. Police in the US tend to avoid using them, especially after the Rodney King incident. How much training do UK police officers do with a baton? Do you think batons are a tool that should be used more or less? Similarly, how do you feel about Tasers? I think they’ve displaced physical training in the US to a degree that they’re now a detriment.

Because of operational needs, the time available to train in self-defence, including baton training, is limited. One, two or three day course per year is, I believe, usual. The incapacitant spray, first CS, then PAVA,3 was introduced in my force in the 90s and then Taser in the 2000s. There has been a concerted effort since I retired in 2012 to roll out Taser to many more patrol officers. I think that officers have been encouraged to use these two tactics rather than a baton strike as they are potentially less damaging to the person on the receiving end.

There is, I believe, an overly optimistic view of Taser, that it’s the final answer in officer safety, particularly with respect to the major safety threat to British police officers, an offender armed with a bladed weapon. There is some disturbing footage of a knife attacker in Leytonstone Tube (subway) station in December 2015. A man can be seen in the video slashing at members of the public and being Tasered by police at least twice without effect. In the US this man would undoubtedly have been shot and probably killed. The unarmed British officers on the scene did not have this option and it is mere luck that saved members of the public from being killed.

I’ve noticed UK police have legal powers people in the US would find totally unacceptable - for example, I understand there’s no need for probable cause or reasonable suspicion to stop vehicles. I also have read about Section 60 authority to conduct stop and searches without reasonable grounds when a police chief authorizes it. Do you support that kind of authority for police? Do you think it makes policing easier?

Police in uniform in England and Wales have the power to stop vehicles under a power granted by the Road Traffic Act 1988. This is to ensure that the vehicle is insured, is in roadworthy condition and to check if the driver has a valid licence. Once the vehicle has been stopped the officer may form a reasonable suspicion that other offences may have been committed, or are about to be committed and, armed with that reasonable suspicion, may search the person and the vehicle. This power is conferred under section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. 

The above Act came into force in 1986. I had four years of policing experience before that. This Act was designed to codify what police already did as a matter of custom. It certainly tightened up what we could do.

Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 authorises an inspector to allow searches of people in a specified area without the reasonable suspicion required by section 1 of PACE for a 24 hour period. This is often used when serious violence between groups is anticipated and is intended for the purpose of confiscating weapons.

Both of these powers have been controversial since they were enacted, especially in areas where there is a large concentration of ethnic minorities. Areas of London have high levels of black on black crime. Shootings are common, stabbings more so. The cause of this is primarily turf wars between opposing gangs. Because of this, the stop and search figures in these areas did tend to show that more young black males were stopped and searched compared to other ethnicities. The reason for this should be obvious. Unfortunately, in 2014 the Home Secretary (Interior Minister) Theresa May, decreed that stop and search should be limited in these areas. By 2018 violent crime in London had led the BBC to comment that the murder rate in the city was higher than New York. Commentators were quick to link the decline in stop and search to this. Of course, New York has since seen a massive increase in violent crime, perhaps linked to the decision to disband the NYPD anti-crime unit. If criminals fear that police will stop and search them and find them in possession of weapons that they intend to use then it seems obvious that they will carry them less.

How are police commissioners selected in the UK? Are they elected? Picked by politicians? 

Up until 2012 Police Authorities, bodies made up of elected councillors, local magistrates and appointees of the Home Secretary, interviewed and appointed Chief Constables. The Cameron government created the role of Police and Crime Commissioner in that year The PCC is an elected official who now appoints and can dismiss Chief Constables. The PCC holds the purse strings of a force. They are not supposed to involve themselves in operational matters but because of their control of finance, they effectively do.

The creation of the role was intended to give more democratic control to the people, but it would appear that few were interested as the turnout for the first elections in 2012 was only 15%. I had some experience with working with the old Police Authority and the system worked well and I saw no need to change to a system that the public has little enthusiasm for.

The Graham Factor welcomes submissions from active and retired law enforcement in the U.S. and elsewhere. If you’ve got an interesting story or experience, I’m happy to do my best to interview you, although I’m not much of a journalist. I’m also open to your essays and stories. Send me an email: GrahamFactor@substack.com. I won’t disclose your name or any other personal information without explicit permission.

1

I am using his name with his explicit permission — Graham.

2

I refer to “England and Wales” a few times in my answers. This is because Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own legal systems and manage their own policing. The population of England and Wales makes up over 88% of the population of the United Kingdom. — John Hicks

3

Pava is a kind of pepper spray, CS is tear gas. — Graham