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by Peter Moskos

June 11, 2015

Yeah, but they're foreigners!

What can we learn from them? I know. Nothing. Because this is America. Exceptionalism and all that. I'm not saying we could go to this model overnight, damnit! But we could still learn from it. We could learn a lot from other countries, if we got around to looking. If we start looking at police in other countries, next thing you know we'll have socialism and universal health care.

Man... that's a lot of disclaimers for a thought provoking piece in the Washington Post about Britain's police and their tendency to not shoot people.

Of course there are differences -- big differences, mostly with guns and gun laws -- between the US and UK. No need to point this out. I know. But it's not like England doesn't have guns. There are about 1.8 million legally owned guns in England and Wales.

The stats are amazing. In all of England and Wales, with 56 million people, only about 5 officers discharge their firearm in any given year. (Killing about 3 people per year. There are about 550 homicides over there in all. About 44 or so with guns.)

About 1 in 13 gun killings in the US are committed by law enforcement. That probably means something like 1 in 20 of all homicides (I have not done the math. But 5 percent is probably a good ballpark figure). That figure kind of shocks me. In England and UK, it's about 0.5 percent. (For what it's worth, police over there are still responsible for about 1 in 13 gun killings. It's just the numbers for both are a lot lower.)


Adam said...

That's a good article, but I generally disagree with disarming American cops. I think we could make a lot of headway by just changing the paranoia-inducing nature of most academy training.

One thought I've had is that we could create a group of clearly distinguishable traffic enforcement officers who would have neither guns nor arrest powers. A bit like traffic enforcement officers, but they would drive around and cite people for moving violations. By having them exclusively handle traffic enforcement, it would largely eliminate racial profiling in traffic stops, because profiling is the byproduct of cops doing car stops in order to find "real crime." It would also eliminate the erroneous "I thought he was reaching for a gun" shootings on traffic stops. Some might protest that it's too dangerous for the unarmed officers, but I would disagree. Motorists shoot their way out of traffic stops because they think they're about to get arrested for something more serious. As long as the traffic enforcement cops are easy to distinguish (checkered cars, green overhead lights, putrid yellow uniforms--you get the picture), I don't think they'd face much danger.

The big question would be whether we're willing to give up pretextual traffic stops in order to eliminate a lot of racial profiling and some bad police shootings.

Peter Moskos said...

I, perhaps alone among law enforcement, kind of like that idea. August Vollmer, FYI, advocated for this 90 years ago.

But what do you do with people who won't stop? Or people who are clearly violating the law when they are stopped?

And what else would many state troopers do?

(Also, I don't think anybody is proposing disarming American cops. But what you're saying is it might help to separate armed police from public-service functions that don't need an armed presence.)

And though I have issues with pre-textual car stops (I don't like the concept), I used them. Another legal tool.

Why shouldn't I stop a car driven by some white junkie looking to cop on my post? If I don't stop him pretextually, what should I do? Wait for him to commit a crime? Wait for him to potentially become a robbery victim? Just let him go about his business and go home? I didn't like any of those latter options. So I would give him a ticket for some petty bullshit traffic violation and tell him, on behalf of the good people of East Baltimore, I did not appreciate him coming here to buy drugs. It was like an East Baltimore sin tax.

Dave- IL said...

PCM: "And what else would many state troopers do?"

Ha, good question. Here in IL, ISP mostly sticks to highway patrol except in really rural areas (especially Southern IL). However, they also provide support and investigative services.

If traffic enforcement were to be de-emphasized (and since traffic enforcement is often more about revenue production than it is public safety, I think it should be), you could almost eliminate the state patrol function in many states. Troopers do provide back-up in rural areas and provide accident reconstruction services, so that would have to be considered (liberal mutual aid agreements might fill the gaps). But, without all the ticket-writing, the state law enforcement function could be pretty much focused on investigation, protective functions (Capitol, Executive, etc) and special services like natural resources protection.

Peter Moskos said...

Just to be clear, at least here in NY State, a lot of troopers handle normal patrol and 911-calls in towns and areas that don't have a local police department. They are the police for a lot of towns.

Adam said...

-Re: people who don't stop: as it is, police departments increasingly don't allow cops to pursue fleeing motorists if they're wanted only on a traffic charge. That was the case in the Baltimore PD when I was there. I think the traffic enforcement cops could record the license plate and have the registration suspended, which would be better than nothing. If it turned out that the registration was phony or didn't match the car, that would get sorted out, as I'm sure it does with red light and speed cameras.

-Re: observing a crime: I'd say the traffic enforcement officer should ignore minor stuff like drugs. If there's a kidnapped child or a dead body in the back seat, they should scurry back to their car and radio for a real cop.

-Re: state troopers: I dunno. That's a good point. I guess we could phase them out over time. In the immediate term, municipalities could implement this policy, and that might do a lot of good.

And as for pretextual car stops, I enjoyed using them, too. But I think a lot of cops fail to realize how low a standard "reasonable suspicion" is. It's low enough that there are often ways to stop cars without resorting to pretext. "I thought he looked like a junkie" is actually a valid observation that can go toward meeting the reasonable suspicion threshold. If he's slowing down to look at groups of young guys on the street corners, if he has out-of-state tags--those things can add up and get you a valid car stop.

Peter Moskos said...

Yeah. I could articulate suspicion for a drug stop I suppose. Physical characteristics of addict. 3am. Slowly circling drug block. The "I [heart] Dundalk" bumpersticker (just kidding about the last one). But what kind of charge is "looking to buy drugs"? They hadn't bought yet. So they didn't have drugs on them.

I figured a traffic ticket or even a strong warning was a good enough lesson. I would only look to arrest the addict if he or she didn't have a license or actually came back to the same damn block! My most-common BS (but legit) violation was not stopping at the point a stop sign was placed.

Once, when I was following some white junkie around Wolfe and Eager, the guy used actual hand signals to a signal left and right turns. I could be wrong, but I think that is actual legal. I don't know. But I do know my dad used to that sometime for reasons I do not understand. Maybe just to embarrass me. I let that guy go after letting him know him why I was going to stop him and why I decided not to.

Anonymous said...

I would bet that most all of the 1.8 million guns in Britain are rifles and shotguns. By contrast, America has at least 100 million handguns in circulation, and another estimated 200 million rifles and shotguns. That's what? 150 times as many guns in circulation?

If people really wanted to see a decrease in police violence and violence at large, handgun related crimes would get 20 years minimum. Handgun-armed robbery? 20 years. Illegal concealed carry? 15 years. Bring a handgun into a secured building? 15 years. Shoot someone? 25 to life. Every time. Instead, Johnny ends up getting 2 years of probation for carrying a handgun, gets a new handgun, and repeats until he pulls it on the cops and gets shot or gets shot by a rival.

Doing away with this, combined with a big bump in clearance rates (40% homicide clearance is appalling and should result in command staff being fired) would actually help cops and citizens feel a lot safer. The dirty secret in the US is, in addition to black clearance rates being half those of white, the clearance rates for non-fatal shootings are pretty much in the single digits.

Not that anyone cares as long as most homicide victims are black or criminals.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, looking at that Guardian article, there are only about a maximum of 140,000 Rifle/Pistol certificates in the UK... Estimating 100,000 handguns, that would mean the US has about 1000x as many handguns in circulation.

Anonymous said...

I would also add that "policing by consent" only works when people are reasonably willing to consent to be policed. In the US, we have so many sovereign citizens, racists, general anti-government types, and of course armed criminal gangs, that there is a significant segment of society which will simply never consent to being policed.

Peter Moskos said...

They roll their eyes a bit at the "policing by consent" bit. There's a bit of PR bullshit in that. But they do proudly describe themselves as "public servants" (though "not subservient").

Kyle said...

Ah yes, the ol "mandatory minimums" argument. Never mind that it doesn't work, you get things like the woman with a valid cc permit going into a state she thought had reciprocity but doesn't and is looking at 15 years. But hey, it's tough on crime, right?

Peter Moskos said...

It doesn't have to be a lot. It shouldn't be a lot. But I do think doing (some) time every time you're caught with an illegal gun does serve a deterrent effect. And if that woman gets caught as collateral damage, so be it.

The key is not the "mandatory minimum" part but actually following through and not letting people off for carrying illegal guns. It could just be 6 months. But I think it contributed to the decline of gun violence in NYC.

Anonymous said...

Not for nothing, but if my research is accurate 105 US police officers have been murdered by gunfire alone (not stabbed to death, beaten to death, run over, etc) since the last UK police officers were murdered in the line of duty. PC Hughes and PC Bone 9/18/2012
The UK has a murder rate of 1.0 and the US has a murder rate of 4.7 (similar to Yemen and Niger).
It would be nice if we could police like the UK. I would like to start with getting their ASBA Dispersal Orders.
Oh, and they don't have a pesky constitution to deal with either.