Once upon a time the English policeman was known around the world as one of the few law enforcement officers who went completely unarmed. He (there were no frontline women officers in those days) patrolled the streets and confronted law-breakers armed only with his trusty truncheon.
The changed was a creeping one, not a sudden overnight conversion. Officers on missions deemed to be dangerous were issued with handguns for brief, stipulated periods. But it was still rare to see an armed policeman on the streets of British cities.
Compare that with the scene today. The sight of an armed policeman is common. At airports and railway stations police officers patrol in pairs. They carry sub-machine guns at the ready, wear bulletproof vests and sport equipment belts holding an array of non-lethal gadgets and weapons too numerous to count. They include Taser guns that incapacitate the suspect by administering a powerful electric shock, capsicum or pepper spray, Mace, teargas, batons, and handcuffs.
These weapons are not harmless. The pepper spray has been linked to dozens of deaths and series injuries worldwide. The US Army has concluded that the spray can cause “mutagenic effects, carcinogenic effects, cardiovascular and pulmonary toxicity and possible human fatalities. There is a risk in using this product on a large and varied population.”
Being hit by pepper spray has been described by a victim to like having cigarettes pushed into your eyes or like having your face set on fire then tabasco sauce poured into it. But there is doubt about its overall effectiveness as a defence weapon. Experts agree that there is a safety zone for a knife attack of six metres — it is unsafe to get closer than this to the knife wielder. But the pepper spray is only effective at a distance of about four metres.
So an article written after the police in New South Wales, Australia, decided to add the pepper spray to their arsenal, decided: “It won’t be used to reduce fatal shootings. Instead it will become an additional weapon used to enforce compliance with police directions or to inflict summary punishment and at other times will be arbitrarily directed against intoxicated people or people with a mental illness.”
Amnesty International has condemned the proliferation of Tasers and the United Nations considered their use to be tantamount to torture. Yet police forces around the world are being armed with more weapons, which have been shown to cause more, rather than less, suffering and death and the crucial question why is being neglected.
Help may come from an unexpected quarter: police officers themselves. A police journal report called “Overloaded” listed ten items which the average officer was now required to carry: a firearm, a spare magazine, pepper spray, handcuffs, extendable baton, portable radio, mobile phone, portable radio, Taser, torch and leatherman tool.
The report concluded that officers found their equipment belts weighed nearly seven kilos, enough to add nearly 10 per cent to a medium-sized officer’s body weight. Officers complained that their equipment belts caused bruising, muscular pain, sciatica, rashes, neck pain and varicose veins.
In 2010 one officer sued the Queensland Police Service, Australia, for more than $300,000 for the chronic back pain she claimed to have suffered as a result of the heavy equipment she was forced to wear. The Queensland Government argued that her problems were caused by obesity but other cases are said to be in the pipeline.
We can only hope that they cause a halt to the increasing militarisation of our police forces and bring back the days of the unarmed British bobby and his avuncular image.
Phillip Knightley is a veteran British journalist and commentator