Much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the last 24 hours at this:
It is, of course, a terrible occurrence for the families, friends and colleagues affected by it.
For rather more folk, though, it is an unmissable opportunity to re-mount two well-worn hobby horses. Those of arming the police, and of the death penalty.
Let’s deal first with arming the police.
The police have not, ever, been widely armed in the UK. Over time, under cover of the ‘fight against terrorism’, airports, seats of power and so forth have become exceptions. The police have also adopted widespread use of Tasers, which are legally categorised as firearms in the UK meaning we are not allowed to own them and to do so carries the same penalty as holding a live handgun. I’ve written several times in the past about the police and their clumsy, idiotic excursions with Tasers.
In the last post I made on the topic, the police had accidentally shot a 14 year old girl after their intended target ‘dodged the bullet’. Previously, a man was accidentally shot in the groin with a Taser, during a traffic stop.
At least neither of those were accidents with actual guns.
Of those few guns out there under the control of police officers, in 2009, police issued guns were accidentally fired 110 times. At the time of that writing, according to the press, 6868 officers were authorised to use firearms in England and Wales.
In 2012, there are 134,000 police officers in England and Wales. Let us just assume that all officers receive firearms training and authorisation, and that accident rates remain the same, 16 incidents per 1,000 officers, per annum. That means, with all 134,000 of them armed, we could see more than 2100 accidental discharge incidents a year. And we’re assuming here, that the rate would remain the same. This ignores a very sensible notion – that the currently authorised firearms officers are, in fact, the cream of the crop; the most capable and trustworthy of officers. Can we really assume that the rate of incidents would not rise if every common-or-garden journeyman constable was given a shooter?
And lets not miss this opportunity to remember the appalling case of Brazilian electrician Jean Charles De Menezes. Shot to death by Met Police officers while in possession of a foreign accent, two weeks after the 2005 London bombings. If the ‘cream of the crop’ can make such a terrible error as this, what do you honestly think would happen in such a tense atmosphere? Somewhere in the country, someone would eat a bullet for ‘looking funny’ at a copper.
In 1997, in the wake of the Dunblane massacre, the general public were banned from being licensed to possess handguns. The arguments around this are well rehearsed, and those who said that the criminals would remain armed and the lawful public would be disarmed and disadvantaged were correct. Gun crime was not reduced – it doubled in 10 years. Further, so the argument goes, if you arm all police, career criminals who had not previously armed themselves would begin to do so, and gun crime would therefore inevitably rise further. [Somehow this para was lost in the first edit – it’s now back]
The police in Britain (if not the UK overall), are citizens of our society. They are not above us or in someway separate. They are not a paramilitary force. For all they seem to forget the fact, they are still obliged to police according to the Peelian Principles.
The long and short of it is this: The police are the public, therefore if you want to arm the police, you need to allow the lawful public to arm themselves as well. Fail to do this and the Peelian principles are dead and buried. This is what much of the political establishment (and of course, the power-hungry police brass) wants. It must not be allowed to happen.
Now, shall we move on to the death penalty?
The death penalty is much more a question of the judicial end of the criminal justice system, but my first point is that the fallible and sometimes rotten police give evidence in court which carries significantly more weight than that of a defendant, by dint of their implied authority, and by explicit rules of evidence. The police, then, are a major source of fallibility in the court system.
Mistakes do happen in courts, and miscarriages of justice do happen.
When the Guildford Four were found guilty of the Guildford pub bombings in the 1970s, the judge expressed his regret during sentencing, that the death penalty was not open to him. The four were sentenced to prison and their convictions were not overturned until 1989.
Other more recent high profile miscarriages of justice include the strange case of Barry George, convicted in 2001 of the murder of Jill Dando, his conviction then quashed in 2007.
See here for a longer list of such miscarriages, including Derek Bentley who was hanged in 1953, only to be shown innocent in 1998. Also getting a mention in that list are acquitted ‘child killers’ Angela Cannings and Sally Clark – both victims of unreliable ‘expert evidence’ against them. Expert evidence has had weight given to it in court that is simply not warranted. The BBC have another similar list here.
So, do you really want the death penalty back? Particularly, do you want the death penalty to be a ‘specially reserved’ sanction for only the most emotive cases? Do you even want to open the can of worms of why the murder of a police officer would warrant the death penalty, but the raping and killing of a female civilian would not?
If you answered yes, to any of those last three questions, you would probably be more comfortable living in a country like Russia. Please go with haste.