How does society’s interpretation of authority affect the perpetration of violence? Contrast recent shootings involving police officers.
Last week, police constables (PC) Nicola Hughes, 23, and Fiona Bone, 32, responded to a fake burglary call in the Tameside borough of Greater Manchester, U.K. Several gunshots were fired and a grenade was set off upon their arrival. One PC was killed immediately, the other shortly after. The prime suspect, Dale Cregan, is also wanted in other recent killings. He has since given himself up to the authorities.
Saturday morning, a Houston police officer shot and killed a man in a group home for mental patients. The victim, Brian Claunch, was schizophrenic, one-armed, one-legged, and limited to a wheelchair. After a caretaker refused to give him a cigarette and pop, Claunch intimidated him with a pen.
The caretaker called the police, who sent two officers to the scene. Claunch backed one into a corner with his wheelchair and continued making threats. The other officer, Matt Marin, shot Claunch in the head.
In response to the Tameside killings, many British citizens have called for the arming of police constables, who currently have Tasers and pepper spray. This tradition has been upheld since the force’s formation under Sir Robert Peel, a nineteenth century Prime Minister. Peel’s nine principles include maintaining police as part of the public, and having strong relationships with their community. Police efficiency is demonstrated by peace and order, rather than a show of force in the retaliation of crime.
Greater Manchester’s Chief Constable, Sir Peter Fahy, supports maintaining the unarmed tradition. He points to the American experience, in which armed police officers are not always unharmed officers. If Bone and Hughes had been carrying guns, would the scenario have played out differently? One can argue that a perpetrator would be hesitant to lure armed officers into a lethal trap. In hindsight, it was a tragic situation that hinged upon the intent of a homicidal individual, not the equipment of the responding authorities.
A death would have certainly been prevented if the Houston police officers did not carry guns, or were trained to deal with disabled people. I fail to see how a one-armed man, bound to a wheelchair, wielding a pen presents any threat to two people fit and alert enough to graduate from the police academy, whether or not they have weapons.
Views on the police’s right to use violence directly correspond to the police’s hierarchical position in the community. In America, the police are alternately viewed as saviors and corrupt tattletales, but almost always as separate and distant from civilians.
I am envious of the U.K. What better peacemaking axiom exists for law enforcement than Peel’s, “the police are the public, and the public are the police?” If police are inseparable from their communities, then a black and white, good guys versus bad guys, violence-condoning philosophy cannot be sustained. A uniform should not be a barrier of personal interaction.
Community members are then also obliged to form relationships, as opposed to reinforcing divided hierarchy. I am certainly culpable in propagating this system. Spending high school in a one square mile town with six part-time, egotistical cops only encouraged distaste for authority figures. However, the friendlier we are with our security guards, local police, and administration, the more we become part of an interconnected public. Each fulfills divergent roles within society, but none have the unquestionable right to physical or social violence. Conflict mediation and psychologic analysis become paramount skills, rather than aim and gun familiarity.
EMU is a hotbed for this inclusive mentality. In spite of the established system, we have the ability to effect change within local society. If we students are actively forging ties with the authorities that have influence in our lives, then conflict has much less potential for escalation.
Have conversations with the security guards that drive around at night. Have a conversation with a police officer. The established division between civilians and uniforms prevents extensive contact, but make use of what opportunities appear, and the establishment will evolve.
Can violence and crime ever be eradicated? I think not. However, by building relationships with the facets of the law, we can help break down the dichotomy of “them” and “us” and redefine wary crime fighters as interconnected peacemakers. If guns are some day removed from the hands of uniformed officers, it will not be because of policy, but because our generation has integrated the police back into the public.
Randi Hagi, Co-Editor in Chief