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So Chris, how does policing in the United States differ from the United Kingdom? This question was asked of me many times when earlier this year I had the pleasure of spending time with officers from several agencies in Southern California, including Los Angeles, South Pasadena, San Bernardino and Carlsbad.
While we all know crime and criminals are basically the same the world over, and law enforcement professionals across the globe share a camaraderie due to shared experiences, it's interesting to note the many differences that exist. The most obvious difference is that in the U.K., officers are primarily unarmed, with firearms incidents managed by specialist teams. Indeed, for many years I walked the streets of London armed only with a small, wooden truncheon tucked in a secret pocket so as not to alarm anyone. Now, thankfully, most officers carry a baton and incapacitant spray and wear a protective vest.
The issue of arming police officers is a subject of regular debate within the U.K., and officers raise strong views every time they suffer the loss of a colleague in the line of duty or when officers come under fire from armed criminals. The debate goes back to the very basis of British policing set by Sir Robert Peel when he formed the Metropolitan Police in 1829. Peel stipulated a number of principles, including 1) the police are simply citizens in uniform and 2) police can operate only with the public's consent.
The upside: Guns within British society are not widely used and unlawful possession results in a significant jail term. (I was amazed to learn that a citizen carrying a handgun stopped by a Los Angeles officer faced only a misdemeanor charge.) Most U.K. citizens have little or no involvement with any sort of firearm, and the latest official figures show that less than one in 100 violent crimes involved firearms, and only 8 percent of homicides (around 80 across the whole country) were gun-related.
Clearly the issue of arming affects the nature of encounters between the police and the public. During my U.S. visit, I witnessed differing tactics between departments. For example, Los Angeles police and sheriff's officers showed marked differences in their methods of concluding forced traffic stops, but only in terms of how the occupants of the offending vehicle were dealt with. In the U.K., it's totally different without weaponry to control the suspects, most pursuits end with officers out on foot chasing the criminals as they run from their vehicle. To counter this, most forces now have pursuit policies that involve both helicopter and K-9 units to help officers track down offenders.
Another difference involves identification. Officers I spoke to on patrol in California were amazed to hear that in the U.K. citizens do not have identification cards (although new legislation is being proposed after the recent suicide bombings on the underground), and that there is no requirement for drivers to carry a driver s license or similar document while driving. We have the power to require a driver to produce their driving documents within seven days, but at the time of the stop, we depend upon detailed questioning to establish identities and ownership of the vehicle.
While this lack of requirement for identification was met with astonishment, I restored balance when I related our ability to track offenders and incidents via an intricate CCTV network. Huge banks of TV screens are a common feature within U.K. police control rooms, and I was surprised to see the various 911 rooms in the United States without any. The impetus for CCTV proliferation resulted from various terrorist acts on the U.K. mainland, and most accept it as a normal way of life. Indeed, the media estimates that every person in the U.K. is recorded by 300 separate CCTV cameras every day. We re now developing this technology to include automatic number plate recognition to capture every plate as it passes any camera and automatically identify those that are stolen or otherwise used unlawfully.
The United States is beginning to come to terms with terrorism, while the U.K. has faced terrorist threats on a daily basis for decades. On a personal level, the front windows to my own apartment were blown out by an IRA bomb. Professionally, I have agonized many times about whether to close down a building or street while staring at a suspicious package. And, the threat is not restricted to modern-day weaponry. Recently, I was responsible for managing the response to workmen in the heart of the city striking what they believed to be an unexploded, 1,000-lb. German bomb from World War II.
Certainly, there are differences between the United States and the U.K. in terms of tactics, threats and responses, but the reality is there are many similarities. We may be divided by an ocean, but I witnessed a shared desire to make a difference in the communities we police, to support those in need of our help and, in doing so, to maintain our democracies against the threats we jointly face.
Superintendent Chris Weigold is the operational head of communications within Avon and Somerset Constabulary, a force of 5,000 police officers and staff located in western England. He s responsible for running three separate control-room facilities across the force. In January, he traveled as a Tilley Award winner to study policing methods within a number of departments in California.