Traditionally, the British bobby was a source of British pride and visitors’ envy.
The bobby, armed with little more than a truncheon and the occasional frown, commanded respect and kept the peace, even in the toughest neighborhoods. He seemed to spend as much time helping lost children and misdirected tourists as fighting crime.
“There are few countries in the world where the police are looked upon as men and women who help old ladies across the road or can be asked the time,” said Gerald Kaufman, a member of Parliament and home secretary in the Labor Party’s shadow Cabinet. “I cannot imagine doing that in New York or France.”
But pressures from rising crime, growing social unrest and the threat of international terrorism are rapidly eroding this image of the British police.
For visitors, the sight of London police officers patrolling Heathrow Airport with submachine guns and bulletproof vests is unsettling. For many Britons, the growing arsenal of police equipment is equally so.
In the past decade, a rapidly changing social climate has brought the police into direct and sometimes violent confrontation with racial minorities and special interest groups, and this has led the country’s various police forces to equip themselves with armored patrol vehicles, steel helmets, riot shields, plastic bullets and tear gas.
An occasional whiff of scandal in the police ranks and a lack of progress in containing crime have added to the public disquiet.
“In the 1950s, the police were heroes and symbols of national pride, but since then things have come gradually unstuck,” said Robert Reiner, a lecturer in the sociology of law at Bristol University. “Today, there is very real opposition from minority groups and parts of the middle class. There’s more questioning of the police role in general.”
Second on List
To be sure, the level of disaffection and violence remains low by international standards. A recent survey of British attitudes placed the police second only to the country’s major banks on a list of institutions that the public considers well run.
The British still rely on the police for a variety of non-emergency tasks, from reporting a lost dog to checking on an elderly relative in a distant town. And although violent crime and instances when firearms are issued to the police are rising sharply, the 27,000 officers of the London Metropolitan Police fired just seven rounds last year in the course of their duties.
Seventy-nine American police officers were killed in the line of duty last year; in Britain, only one. Indeed, last year’s death toll among American police officers fell only three short of the number of British police victims this century.
Six of these 82 deaths have been linked to the growth in international terrorism, including three officers killed by a Christmas, 1983, Irish Republican Army bomb planted outside Harrods department store in central London and a policewoman shot by a sniper from the Libyan Embassy four months later.
Efforts to counter this threat have been one reason for the rise in instances in which British policemen today are issued firearms.
But it is a dispiriting malaise of home-grown problems, including a declining respect for authority, high unemployment and racial tensions that have generated the greatest concern about the police role in a society struggling to confront new social pressures.
The intensity of these pressures has escalated rapidly. Chief Supt. Michael Briggs of the Met, as the London force is known, recalls that 10 years ago the police responded to one of London’s first major racial disturbances equipped only with night sticks and--to ward off a hail of rocks and bottles--trash can covers and stray pieces of furniture.
Last October, the police turned out against mobs in North London equipped with riot shields, steel helmets, fire-retardant clothing and, for the first time ever, plastic bullets. The latter were not used, even though the rioters fired shotguns.
Last weekend, the police donned riot gear in the city of Bristol to quell sporadic racial disturbances that followed a series of drug raids.
As racial tension simmers in the inner cities, the police elsewhere have been used to tackle politically linked public order disturbances such as anti-nuclear demonstrations and trade union disputes.
Several Bloody Clashes
In a particularly vicious, yearlong coal miner’s strike that ended in March, 1985, the police in South Yorkshire engaged in several bloody clashes with pickets. More recently, thousands of policemen in London have been sent to separate angry workers fired by newspaper publisher Rupert Murdoch from employees at his new printing plant in East London.
“We’re caught between the pirates of the newspaper industry and the pirates of the trade unions,” Chief Supt. Briggs lamented. “The days of compromise are gone. Now these confrontations have to have a winner and a loser, and we’re used as arena marshals in wars of attrition.”
Film on the television news showing heavily equipped police about to enter some new battle has gradually begun to undermine the traditional image of the bobby as a relaxed, unarmed man.
“People have started to think that policing is helmets, shields and acting like soldiers,” said David J. Smith, co-author of a study of London’s police force published three years ago by the Policy Studies Institute. “The implications of this are tremendous.”
Code of Minimum Force
From its inception as an organized force in the 1820s, Britain’s police rejected aggressive tactics, invoked a code of minimum force and cultivated strong community relations.
The benign style was part of a compromise to accommodate aristocratic concerns that a formal force might become a tool of royal oppression as in other European countries, especially France.
The bobbies--the term is taken from the name of the home secretary who organized the first force in Britain, Sir Robert Peel--were dressed in blue uniforms to set them apart from the military, which traditionally wore scarlet.
And the public entrance to London’s police headquarters in a small courtyard called Scotland Yard became synonymous with public-service policing, in contrast to the unease evoked by far tougher continental police.
Such was a law officer’s reputation for integrity that Lord Denning, one of Britain’s most respected judges, once quipped that when he began practicing law in the late 1930s, the quickest way for a defense lawyer to alienate a jury was to challenge a policeman’s testimony.
Repeated Financial Crises
But the social upheaval that followed World War II, the influx of immigrants from former colonial areas and repeated government financial crises combined to place new strains on the police. Reduced budgets led to reduced manpower, and the bobby on the beat began disappearing into patrol cars as hard-pressed urban police became mobile forces reacting to sharply increased crime. “Scotland Yard” even moved out of Scotland Yard to a new, glass high-rise.
In 1954, a total of 241 robberies were recorded in the London area, including 12 in which firearms were used. Three decades later, the number of robberies was 13,570, and nearly 1,500 of these involved firearms.
In the late 1970s, a tripling of unemployment and a growing drug problem added fuel to the crime rate. As a result, 10% of Britain’s traditionally unarmed police--the figure is 20% in London--are now trained in the use of firearms, and firearms are issued to them when senior officers believe they may have to face criminals judged to be armed and dangerous.
A series of tragic incidents in the last three years, in which policemen have shot innocent people instead of the criminals they were after, has tarnished the image of careful restraint and brought a review of police firearms training. Neither the public nor the police advocates greater use of weapons, but events are moving in that direction.
‘Still a Long Way’
“The police use of firearms will increase, but we’re still a long way from regular arming,” said Tony Judge, spokesman for the Police Federation, which negotiates wages and conditions for the country’s 120,000 police officers. “But who would have thought 20 years ago that 20% of the police in London would be trained in firearms?”
Even more worrisome than the increase in violent crime is the complex problem created by the racial minorities that today inhabit vast areas of Britain’s inner cities. Instead of enjoying broad public support, the police in these areas are viewed with suspicion. Their authority is constantly challenged, their rapport with the local population is often non-existent.
In the chronically run-down northern industrial city of Liverpool, the police ran into unprecedented resistance from inner-city schoolteachers who said that hostility among pupils toward the police was too great even to allow the presentation of police community relations programs.
‘A Bloody Good Hiding’
A few years ago, in the London borough of Hackney, elected councilors threatened to withhold funds budgeted for a police-citizen consultative group because of anti-police feelings. And last October, the black leader of a North London local government body crowed over the death and injuries suffered by the police in a riot. He said the officers were given “a bloody good hiding.”
Pivotal to police problems in these areas has been the failure to recruit racial minorities into a force that is overwhelmingly white.
After five years of intensive effort to recruit minorities, there are fewer than 1,000 nonwhite police officers in Britain. Many of these are sneeringly called “coconut blacks"--brown outside but white inside--because they are from middle-class backgrounds with no more knowledge of inner-city problems than most white officers.
Strict educational requirements pose some difficulty, but it is the reluctance of nonwhites to serve in a force regarded by their communities as racist and unfair that is the biggest barrier.
So far authorities have rejected the idea of establishing minority quotas with inferior standards as “degrading and unthinkable,” but in the Birmingham area, the police offer promising nonwhite candidates special tutoring to satisfy the educational minimum. Still, no one predicts a quick breakthrough in the levels of minority recruitment.
Special Cultural Training
Meanwhile, white officers assigned to inner-city areas are given special cultural training in body language and the patois of the large West Indian minority. Community liaison committees have been set up to improve police communications with the public and, where possible, local disturbances are dealt with by officers familiar with the area. But much work remains to be done.
“We were far too late in acknowledging the problem,” Chief Supt. Briggs said. “There’s a whole range of blacks who don’t think we’re sincere.”
Police forces in many areas are trying to rebuild their ties with the public. Opinion polls have shown a strong public preference for the return of the beat patrolman, and many forces have moved in that direction. But most people believe that any real progress in restoring the image of the British bobby is beyond police control.
“It depends on wider economic and social conditions,” Judge, the Police Federation official, said. “And that’s out of our hands.”