Monday, 21 November 2005

Save our police

I have waited for the dust to settle a bit before writing MY take on the recent shooting of a West Yorkshire police officer.
We have had ‘not a woman’s’ job comments, ‘better protection’, ‘arm all police’ and ‘bring back capital punishment’ responses.
Insofar as job for women. There is nothing about police work that inherently determines which sex should do it. It is only fairly recently that female officers have been fully integrated. It used to be that they were reserved to deal with offences against women or young children and none would wish that they went back to this limited range of tasks.
Better protection. This presumably means armour. What is most often seen on our police is only a stab vest. This offers no real protection against firearms of even small calibre and low velocity. It is possible to buy proper bullet-proof waistcoats or to upgrade the stab vest by fitting ceramic plates into pockets. This does, however, make the item very heavy and cumbersome. Getting in and out of vehicles or running is made difficult. Additionally, the vest does not give full cover of vulnerable areas. On some, the vest looks like a support bra. The sides of the body are unprotected as is the head and lower body. They cannot be considered really effective. There is also the problem that once an authority recognises the danger by providing bullet-proof clothing, they fall within the scrutiny of Health & Safety who would rule whether they are adequate; they obviously are not.
Arm all the police. Well, funnily enough, they do not all want to be armed. A recent police federation poll showed this to be against the wishes of a large majority. Many said they would leave the service the day the police were universally armed. Some may be concerned at what happens to a firearms officer who does open fire and kills someone. The investigation is intensive and prolonged. Not everyone is capable of being trained to just handle firearms safely still less decide when to shoot and have a real confidence of hitting their target. Police numbers would not permit the removal from current duties of any significant number of candidates for a firearms course and the annual reclassification. Metropolitan police firearms instructors claim it takes five years for an officer to reach the stage where they regard them as fully competent.
Bring back capital punishment. This has a permanent season ticket in the minds of the general public and appears whenever there is a particularly harrowing murder or series of murders. The calls from the public however, never seem to find resonance in the ears of MPs who reject change with a large majority whenever the subject comes up. I did find a well-reasoned presentation on why this should be. The main objection is that execution is so final and there is no redress in the event of a flaw in the legal proceedings that led to the judicial killing. There are opinions that such miscarriages would be much reduced because of advances in forensic science such as DNA and fingerprint analysis. I personally do not thing that a reduction is quite enough. There are no degrees of death – it is as unlikely as being ‘a little bit pregnant’. Another risk is typified in the case of Timothy Evans who was hung for the murder of his wife and child. Evans was somewhat backward and was suggested as the killer by John Christie who lived in the same buildings as Evans. Christie was later identified as a serial killer of prostitutes and it was he who had killed Mrs Evans and her child.
So, what can be done? Firstly – do we really need to do anything? The loss of one life is to be condemned but we should recognise that police do what is a dangerous job and their death is an unfortunate element in their work. I do not want police officers to give their lives when there is an alternative. Changing the publics’ perception of their police is a risky business. Confidence and results declined when the policeman on the street was relocated into panda cars. We like to feel that the ‘bobby’ is approachable and friendly. Dixon of Dock Green was a figure to whom we could relate. Replacing PC George Dixon with the heavily protected and awesome Officer RoboCop would be a bad move. To me, it is clear that we need to have both.
Couch potato critics will say that we already have Armed Response Teams on patrol. Yes we do. They still do not have the operational freedom to mount their weapons and there are not enough of them. Their numbers need to be much increased and they should have the best resources and administration we can provide. Faster transport. Dedicated drivers with advanced driving qualifications. Better nation-wide communications. Targeting of high risk areas. A range of weapons and ammunition to cover all circumstances. There is a reluctance to issue Tasers because someone might get killed. Tough – issue them and leave it to the officers’ discretion when to deploy them. Remote control from someone sitting in an operations cell miles from the action is not satisfactory to deal with a fast-changing and developing situation. The Rules of Engagement need to be re-evaluated and made known to everyone – police, general public and the crooks. I am expected to know that shoving a broken bottle in someone’s face will get me a life sentence so why can I not know what will happen if I insist in waving a real or replica weapon in a manner that suggests I might use it?
Sentencing is part of the legal review that is also required. Evidence that the policy of “Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime” is for real must be firm, clear and widespread. Police abuse of the old Judges Rules led to introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. This introduced essential safeguards but was written at a time when law and order was not under such a heavy and serious challenge as today. For example, police were constrained in the latest incident in releasing descriptions of men they wanted to interview as this could have compromised the evidence from eye-witnesses at any identification parade. There are more.
Attempts to ban handguns after serious incidents were somewhat knee-jerk in style. All that has happened is that those who held short weapons legally have had to surrender them. The crooks can still buy very effective arms and ammunition illegally. There are even people who will rent them out by the day. In the context of their intended crimes, possession of an unlawful weapon is the least of their concerns. Therefore, greater attention must be given to removing weapons from the community.
As in all crime prevention or reduction, much depends on the risk of being caught. So, in events where arms are involved, the odds relating to detection, prosecution, conviction and imposition of a significant sentence have to be significantly raised in favour of the police. If needs be, new legislation. Just let it be written by a proper team of draughtsmen and not on the back of a fag packet by some jovial old buffer of a Home Secretary. Do away with the term ‘life’ or define it exactly. Until death, for 15 (or so) years. Say it, mean it, and stick to it. Get the judiciary on side. No release on licence or grounds of ill-health. Heighten the threshold of judicial review.

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