Cop In A Kilt: Lessons From Cops Who Don’t Kill

Police in Scotland manage to do two things that American cops don’t. They go to work without a gun strapped to their waist and go home for dinner without having killed anyone that day.  A program that seems remarkably obvious, yet hasn’t happened until now, brought American cops to Scotland to learn how this could possibly be.

But a difference long curious to Americans stands out: Most British police officers are unarmed, a distinction particularly pronounced here in Scotland, where 98 percent of the country’s officers do not carry guns. For them, calming a situation through talk, rather than escalating it with weapons, is an essential policing tool, and one that brought a delegation of top American police officials to this town 30 miles northeast of Glasgow.

That 98% of Scottish police are unarmed seems crazy, and begets the obvious question.

“How many officers in Scotland have been killed in the last year or two years?” Chief Shortell added.

Bernard Higgins, an assistant chief constable who is Scotland’s use-of-force expert, stood and answered. Yes, his officers routinely take punches, he said, but the last time one was killed on duty through criminal violence was 1994, in a stabbing.

Compare this to the American way, the First Rule of Policing.

“We in American policing are missing the boat in the respect for human life, altogether,” Chief Chitwood said. The notion drilled into new officers, he said, — “better to be judged by 12 than carried by six” — is misguided.

And what of the citizens?  How many Eric Garners, Tamir Rices and Laquan McDonalds have their been?

So, in classroom seminars and training demonstrations, the group of American leaders learned how the Scottish police outfit rank-and-file officers with batons, handcuffs and pepper spray — but no guns — and how the department’s elite armed response teams have shot civilians only twice in the last decade.

How do they do it?  Attitude.

“The basic fundamental principle, even in the areas where there’s high levels of crime, high levels of social deprivation, is it’s community-based policing by unarmed officers,” Constable Higgins said. “We police from an absolute position of embracing democracy.”

Which means what, exactly?

If armed people ratchet up emotions, the Scottish police seek to defuse them. They pay as much attention to moral standards as legal ones. They do not talk about “deadly” force and would shudder to see such words in their policies. Above all, a Scottish constable’s measure of success is whether everyone involved, not just the police officers, survives the confrontation.

Basically, it’s a police culture where not killing people is the bar of success. There’s no cowardice associated with “tactical retreat,” or not teaching a smart ass who’s boss with a beating.  Three aspects of policing are fundamentally different. The Scottish police show patience, they use talk rather than force and they aren’t nearly the cowards American cops have proven to be.

At another exercise, a Scottish officer played a despondent man with a shotgun under his chin. But Dave Harvey, an assistant police chief in Phoenix, later said the response by the Scottish team of armed officers was curious.

“They’re not behind cover,” Chief Harvey said.

This observation is far more than fascinating; it’s deeply revealing. While American cops might drive toward the sound of gunfire to save one of their own, or perhaps a damsel in distress, would they suffer any risk of harm at the hands of a crazy, a criminal, a black kid? Yet, that’s exactly what a Scottish cop would do. They would rather put their own lives at risk than kill without absolute necessity.

But all of this leaves open the big, ugly, nasty question of a fundamental distinction between the U.S. and Scotland.

When those conversations ended, the Americans’ opinions varied. Many lurched back to a simple fact: Far fewer guns are found on Scotland’s streets than the 300 million in circulation in the United States.

“The guns makes the difference, right?” William B. Evans, the Boston police commissioner, said after one presentation by the Scots. “We have so many guns that deadly force, to us, is always there, right?”

The article fails to address this directly, instead circumventing the issue of whether policing in America is inherently more violent because of this hard distinction. Instead, it defaults to the difference in how Scottish police perceive their purpose.

“We’ll show you what our experience is and how we do things,” Mr. House said. “It’s entirely a matter for yourselves as individuals whether you look at that and go, ‘You know, there’s something there,’ or, ‘Actually, that’s Scotland, that’s a different country.’ ”

To the extent it deals with the problem, it’s from the police officers’ perspective, that there are consequences for cops who kill, aside from the potential for prosecution for a bad shoot or being castigated on youtube.

“I’ve watched great cops get into a shooting that destroyed their lives,” Chief Chitwood said. “They may have been exonerated, but they knew their careers were over, they became alcoholics, they lost their marriages, because they couldn’t handle that they took somebody’s life, even if it was a good shooting.”

Then again, a ruined career from a righteous shoot may be preferable than being dead from a criminal’s bullet.

The idea that American police would walk the beat unarmed seems absurd. Once cops have guns, they won’t be taken away.  And yet, even if armed, accepting the premise that the pervasiveness of guns in the hands of criminals is a difference that can’t be ignored, the rest of the lesson, patience, bravery in the face of risk of harm, a First Rule of Policing that everyone, not just the cop, survive the encounter, as the virtues that comprise police culture, would present a fundamental and radical change to the way cops approach their job.

If the internal culture was to extol the virtues of not harming anyone, of not being considered a coward or failure for not succumbing to force when faced with contempt of cop, the Scottish experience is that everyone involved, cops and citizens, would survive.

But going home to create change in policing culture is not a simple thing, as Chief Shortell, who went from being an undercover officer to the head of the gang unit to leading the New York Police Academy, told the group minutes later.

“If I go back and I do say, ‘Back up,’ ” she said, referring to one of Scotland’s primary tools, “they’re going to say, ‘What happened to Terry Shortell?’ They are.”

After all, it’s just not the way of the American cop to be patient, de-escalate, back off or take a risk. Will our lives ever matter enough to make them change their ways?

14 thoughts on “Cop In A Kilt: Lessons From Cops Who Don’t Kill

  1. John Barleycorn

    Willingly and without reservation just might indeed take on a whole new meaning and attitude if americian policing took off the spurs, or at least didn’t insist on polishing them so, and reevaluated the “defensive” nature of the quick draw.

    I imagine police recruiting efforts would also potentially see a slightly more introspectively confident crop with a subtlety more nuanced view of humianity show up at the academy’s door step over time as well.

    Keeping the peace while serving and protecting ones community certainaly ain’t what it used be, but few could argue a quicker draw with a bigger gun is the solution.

    Anyway, way out of my league to speak with any authorty on the subject from the badged perspective, but nonetheless a tip of the hat from the cheap seats to those that do pin the badge on everyday.

    And, just for the record, let be known the cheap seats might not always literally be able to have your six but we absolutely want to ethically and morally have your six as you set about your thankless endeavors.

    And yup, we know “we have no idea” but something tells me the super majority of cops really didn’t either until after they pinned on the badge and had a look around some, and chances are good that the ones that still have “no idea” just might be the ones that are gonna be the officers that have “the big ideas” moving forward.

    Anyway, a toast to those officers looking around for new ideas while literally out looking around and keeping it grounded in the land of “who the heck knows” what’s next.

  2. Troutwaxer

    I propose a simple test for this program: Let the Scottish policemen come to the U.S. and practice their form of policing here. I have no idea whether it would be successful, but it seems to me like the obvious next step.

    1. SHG Post author

      Since you’re into tests, here’s one for you. List the top 10 things that are wrong with your comment. You will be graded.

  3. David M.

    Two more factors in play here in Yrp.

    -there are laws to prosecute people who hurt cops’ feelz, so teaching the microaggressive a lesson through the power of violence isn’t as important.

    -prosecutors are a little more willing to go after lawbreaking cops. According to the BBC, the Brits convict 100 cops a year (equivalent to 550/year in the US.)

  4. GJS

    The fundamental difference is that the UK has essentially disarmed the civilian population; the national government, since the end of WWII, once again ‘regulated’ the body of shooting sports devotees to the point where they became an insignificant percentage of the total population. Then when two horrific events occurred (Dunblane 13 March 1996 and Cumbria 2 June 2010), the UK Government reacted swiftly and essentially banned private ownership of hand guns, rifles and shotguns except for extremely closely regulated competition, predator control and very, very limited hunting purposes.

    Post WWI, the UK did the same thing and was so badly disarmed at both the military and civilian levels, Americans had to send donated private civilian firearms plus refurbish some 700,000 ERA WWI P17 rifles under LendLease for what became the Home Guard when the threat of Nazi Germany invading the UK during WWII became a viable threat.

    I think it must also be noted UK Police, in general, adhere more closely to Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing that have as a foundation the concept of Policing by Consent, which does seem to be a concept upon which American-style policing is based or even familiar with.

    It seems the US Federal Government is intent on recycling massive amounts of military gear and funding acquisitions of full auto carbines, APCs and related equipment plus huge stockpiles of ammunition for every possible US Agency from BATFE down to BLM plus every local PD or Sherriff’s Office. So long as that continues, I think it unlikely the attitudes of American LEOs are likely to change.

    I used to say I wouldn’t want to travel to places where traffic cops carried SMGs. Now local, state and federal US Police are regularly seen in Black or Camo BDU style uniforms, with tactical LBE, carrying full auto firearms and practicing tactical type formations every other day; not in SWAT operations but rather in what seems at first blush to be ‘normal’ patrol operations or situational responses.

    I anticipate some will say ‘if only the police or military had the only firearms…….’ However, given the way some citizens have died at the hands of their ‘protectors’ and the apparent lack of real investigation and charges for seemingly obvious serious illegal acts I think LEOs have a long row to hoe here. Trust must be earned and I think many Americans are more than a little skeptical about their police services’ accountability and reliability.

    Sadly I don’t see any massive shift in LEO policies on the horizon, near OR long-term

    1. DaveL

      The fundamental difference is that the UK has essentially disarmed the civilian population;

      I would find this proposition much more convincing if police in Scotland, when presented with a situation where firearms are known to be present, responded in much the same way American police do, with a hail of gunfire. They don’t. Police in Scotland don’t respond to people with guns the way American police do, and American police don’t respond to people with knives and clubs the way Scottish police do.

      1. GJS

        My apologies DaveL; in retrospect my original post was probably too chatty while I attempted to give a little background to the current UK Firearms situation.
        Allow me to sum up.
        1. The UK has effectively removed or strictly controls all legally held firearms in the nation. This does not preclude the acquisition, possession OR use of firearms by criminals or others of malevolent intent by virtue of other criminal activity; theft, robbery, smuggling and illegal/covert manufacture come to mind immediately but there may be others.
        In short regular UK LEOs rarely come in contact with anyone armed.
        2. UK Policing seems firmly rooted in the Peelian Principles. American Policing, particularly over the last 20-30 plus years, seems more militaristic in approach and application EVERY day. Witness the changes in uniforms, equipment and tactics.
        Back to the Peelian Principles; I’d be curious to know how many American LEOs, at any level, even know what these are and how many, if any, had them incorporated in their training. Further, how many American police agencies incorporate them in daily SOPs or even their ‘Mission Statement’?
        3. Lastly the real-but-unelected government (your friendly neighbourhood bureaucrats) at all levels of government seems focused on creating an integrated, cross tier national police force. I find it particularly perturbing they have selected a black combat-style BDU uniform – think SS or Gestapo.

        Equally concerning is the apparent blanket adoption of Infantry style tactics and a combat mind set more suitable to patrolling a hot zone like Fallujah than any American suburb.

        It seems American LEOs today are trained to construe the margins of their precinct houses or stations to be the ‘start line’ and that any ‘target’ (citizen) on the other side of these is in a free fire zone.

        ‘Lock and Load’ is NOT an appropriate police procedure for first contact with a citizen, no matter how difficult the situation. OK an active shooter or obvious violent criminal or terrorist activities (bombs, bullets, bodies etc) – sure.

        A traffic stop? I think NOT.

        You should know I’m an ex-street cop, have served in two NATO Armies (combat arms both times), think Condition One is right and natural in all circumstances but I think it is a travesty any citizen should be in fear of his duly elected government and the potential of a violent response from same for even the most trivial of interactions.

  5. Randy K

    Now lets contrast that to the standard Police Officer in Northern Ireland, also in the UK, all of whom ARE armed. Why the difference if it’s the same country?

    From what I can see it’s mainly a difference of cultures. In Scotland the average Scot see the police officer as another Scot, and so that police officer has that rapport to start as a basis to deescalate a situation. Contrast that with Northern Ireland where the average officer is from the Protestant community, while the average offender is from the Catholic community. They don’t have the same basis for deescalation. This seems pretty similar to what you’d find between a typically white officer interacting with a black offender. Which isn’t to say that deescalation can’t happen, just that it’s much more difficult with out the small level of trust that can come from shared experiences.

      1. Randy K

        Sorry if I wording was unclear, I was only stating that all officers in Northern Ireland are armed. The rest of the UK the officers are almost all unarmed.

  6. RCJP

    I’m not sure what’s more breath taking. The ignorance of the article or the ignorance of the commenters.

    The Washington Post estimates there will be about 1000 police shootings this year. That’s one for every 750 cops. So, with the average cop working 20 years, even if there were three officers in every shooting (the average in LA is 2) , less than 10% of all officers would ever be in a shooting.

    The author’s blatant dishonesty in addressing the US threat environment is simply stunning. On average 50 US officers are feloniously killed in the US each year, versus none in Scotland in over 20 years. So 1000 to zero is a pretty fair comparison.

    I’m willing to bet that neither Mr. Greenfield (who plainly and professionally simply hates cops) nor most of the commenters has spent more than an hour (if that) in a US police car, except maybe the back seat. “Infantry style tactics?” Clearly who ever said that has never spent a minute in the infantry. Some things in matters of arms are going to be consistent. Ballistics don’t change for blue uniforms and green ones. But if you think triangulated positions using cover and concealment and superior force are infantry-like, then I’d be amused by your reaction to an actual infantry assault with an M240B team initiating from a support-by-fire position, followed by a dynamic entry using fragmentation grenades. But, hey, whatevs.

    But, there was one fairly sound comment. It would be quite amusing to see Scottish cops roll out of LAPD Southeast Station and answer a few shifts of radio calls in Imperial Courts or Nickerson Gardens in the summer. Oh, 90% of the calls they could answer quite effectively. They are no doubt professionals. But Scottish cops’ solution to a guy walking down the street shooting a gun would be for someone else to handle it. American cops don’t have that luxury. Unlike Mr. Greenfield.

    1. SHG Post author

      My feelz were kinda hurt that no badge-bunny showed up to tell me how wrong I was. What took you so long?

      The author’s blatant dishonesty in addressing the US threat environment is simply stunning.

      Your blatant dishonesty at what a bunch of pussies today’s cops are is simply stunning. Man up, Tinkerbell, and stop your whining about how hard it is to be a cop. If you’re too stupid or scared to do the job, go work for Dairy Queen and stop embarrassing the cops who have the guts, brains and integrity to do their job. The good ones hate you because you disgrace them.

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