Tuesday, 16 August 2011

British police don't want American supercop

David Cameron's announcement last week that he is appointing former New York City police chief Bill Bratton to guide the UK through its response to the riots has been met with a barrage of criticism from the country's police chiefs. The war of words over the appointment of the controversial 'supercop', who implemented New York's "zero tolerance" approach to policing in the 1990's, has exposed a deep rift between Westminster and Scotland Yard, and the atmosphere is only getting more heated.

Bratton gained fame as New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's right-hand man in implementing the "broken windows theory" of policing in the city. The theory states that petty crime leads to serious crime, so the 1990's led to a serious crackdown on minor offenses. It turned New York from one of the most crime-ridden cities in the Western world to the safest large city in the United States. But on the flip side, many say it has turned New York into a virtual police state, where officers can arrest you for anything.

The original plan was reportedly to appoint Bratton as London's police commissioner, but this was shot down because he is not a British citizen. So instead he has been appointed as a government adviser. But even this has angered Britain's police chiefs, who say Bratton's 'zero tolerance' approach to policing in America is not appropriate for the UK.

Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, told the Daily Mail that the American style of policing would not be possible in Britain because the UK is subject to the European Convention on Human Rights' guarantees on civil liberties. "If you look at the style of policing in the States, and their levels of violence, they are fundamentally different from here. What I suggested to the Home Secretary is a more sensible approach, maybe to look across far wider styles of policing and – more usefully – at European styles; they, like us, are bound by the European Convention."

It is certainly true that the American style of policing is very different from the European style. When you grow up in America as I did, the very aggressive policing seems quite normal. When I moved to the UK I was really shocked by how passive the police were. I remember the first time I saw the British version of "Cops", I couldn't believe the abuse the police were taking from people with no repercussions.  They would pull people over, and the drivers would get out of their vehicle and march back to the police car, pointing a finger in the cop's face and heaping verbal abuse upon him. If you did that in the US, you would be arrested on the spot. But in the UK, you cannot be arrested for swearing at a police officer.

Orde's objection to Bratton's 'zero tolerance' method wasn't only over its lack of compatibility with the European Court of Human Rights. He also disputed the success of Bratton's methods. "I am not sure I want to learn about gangs from an area of America that has 400 of them. It seems to me, if you’ve got 400 gangs, then you’re not being very effective," he told the Mail. There are drastically fewer street gangs in London, and they are smaller and less sophisticated than in New York or LA.

Orde's objections were backed by West Midlands Chief Constable Chris Sims, who said Britain should not be ‘slavishly adopting empty slogans’. Similar skepticism has been expressed in the ranks at Scotland Yard.

Even those who are supportive of the 'zero tolerance' idea have been pointing out that it would be impossible to do what Bratton did in New York without a massive increase in the UK police budget - and the prime minister actually has plans in place to cut Britain's police by 16,000 officers. London Mayor Boris Johnson - from Cameron's own party - noted yesterday that Bratton's "particular success in tackling crime in New York was very much due to a huge ramp up in numbers from about 30,000 to 42,000 officers in New York, that was instrumental in his success." He has called for the cuts to be scrapped.

But Cameron has steadfastly refused to back down on his plans to cut the policing budget, even after a steady stream of attack from the opposition Labour party and senior police chiefs. The Conservatives have now begun an aggressive counter-attack against the police, a bizarre situation for them to find themselves in given the Tories traditionally like to see themselves as the defenders of law and order. Orde's comments have been criticised by a number of Tory MPs.

For his part, Bratton appears to think that the strong reaction against his appointment has more to do with the fact that he is a foreigner than with an objection to his aggressive style of policing. He told the Guardian newspaper yesterday that Orde had no right to criticize him because Orde was in the same position, as an Englishman, when he was previously head of police in Northern Ireland. "I find it ironical the hue and cry about outsiders," he told the paper, adding that American police chiefs would be fired if they spoke out against politicians in this way. He has reportedly told friends that he would be willing to become a British citizen in order to become the London police commissioner.

It's hard to say whether America's aggressive style of policing would work in Britain, or indeed in any country in Europe. But given the psychological shock that the riots have provoked, the British public is looking for answers fast. I'm in London this week and the increased police presence is very noticeable, I'm seeing an officer basically every block. It does seem to be making everyone feel safer - but how long will they be able to keep it up? With the cuts to policing budgets, such a visible police force like we're seeing this week, and like one sees in New York, won't be possible.

I'm flying to New York on Friday for a week at home. Will I feel safer there because there are more police officers on the streets? It's hard to say if that's the reason, but I can definitely say I feel much safer in New York than in London. But that's just from experience. I've been the victim of crime five times in London, while I have never been the victim of crime in New York.


Steve S. said...

Given that the US and the UK both share the common law tradition, I find it curious to see Brits treating the American criminal justice system as if it were somehow alien to them. Especially considering that the other EU countries (other than Ireland) are civil-law, the norms of which somewhat foreign to the Anglo-American system.

Truth be told, the police chiefs' objections are just lip music, they're annoyed that a foreigner got a job that should have gone to a Brit, and they're probably right, I don't see how this appointment makes political sense. That said, I think we would hear the same objections if Cameron had nominated a Frenchman or (god help us) a German. Remember the joke about the nightmare of European integration where all the policemen are German and the cooks are British.

But, I wasn't aware that US policing is significantly more heavy-handed than elsewhere. (I suspect race has a lot to do with the perception and reality of policing, bit that is probably true in Europe as well.) Living in DC, the Secret Service are definitely pretty agressive (and rude) but the regular DC police aren't and neither are the Capitol Police, for the most part.

Anonymous said...

It makes no sense for the Met to bring in a foreigner who has no knowledge of the UK to run the police force. What is Cameron thinking??

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