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?