Cops and guns, U.S. and U.K. style

No jokes today. Sorry.

Not long after the grand jury voted not to indict Ferguson, Missouri, policeman Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, Wild Thing and I were sitting around the kitchen table with J. and M., talking about cops and guns. J. is a retired British policeman, which is another way of saying that he’s used to working without a gun. U.K. police forces do have armed response teams, but they’re the exception, not the rule. The cops you see on the street are unarmed.

J. did some training for the German police, who are armed, and he came away from it convinced that the gun can be a liability.

Deeply Irrelevant Photo: Red berries in the fall

Deeply Irrelevant Photo: Red berries in the fall

“Everything they do is about protecting the gun,” he said, angling his body so one hip was away from us and one elbow blocked the imaginary pistol. It means they keep a distance, he said, and that means they have to talk louder. So instead of de-escalating a situation, they stand apart, shouting directions, and everyone gets anxious and angry. In some situations, their guns gave them a false sense of security. He once saw them not search the area around a prisoner in a drug den, although a chisel was within grabbing distance.

What J. learned in his career was to de-escalate. Even in a drug raid, when he was leading a team that had just broken down an apartment door, he found he could keep a normal distance and speak quietly, bringing calm to the situation.

Not carrying a gun, he says, means British cops have to be sensitive to danger and attentive to what is going on around them; carrying a gun means having to keep your distance, because if someone comes at you quickly and you’re too close, you won’t have the chance to use it. That distance changes how policing works.

It’s something to think about.