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Dr. Lech Beltowski

Top Cops advice to “have a go at crims” rational, effective and long overdue

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The article (Herald, Saturday September 2nd 2006) in which Detective Inspector Malcolm Johnston of Christchurch police advises that citizens who think they can take on a burglar should “have a go” is hopefully the first sign of a return to common sense by a police force increasingly struggling to contain serious crime. Recent claims from South Auckland community groups that police have lost the fight against crime in that part of our city gives this whole topic a degree of urgency.

Certainly it is the first time in very many years that a senior police officer has had the courage to voice an opinion contrary to the long-standing police policy of advising  “civilians” that the safest course of action when faced with a criminal is “give them what they want and don’t resist”.  While such a policy (actively discouraging any proactive intervention against criminal activity and mitigating effective self-defence or defence of property) might have appeared justified in the 1970’s, even then it was a policy based more on flawed social theory than on hard fact or a sound knowledge of human nature.

One thing is certain- the evidence that this was a sound police policy that saved innocent lives is simply not there, while evidence that it is dangerous advice that has led to avoidable injury or death has become more and more readily available from overseas. But this is an inevitable consequence of moving away from the the only proven basis for effective policing in a free society, namely the nine basic rules of policing first set out by the founder of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel in 1826. These nine rules (see box) are both a mission statement for police and a guide on how a free and democratic nation can (and should) be policed effectively.;

When asked during a parliamentary select committee “who are the police?” Peel answered that “the police are the public and the public are the police; in other words, the police are SIMPLY MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent ON EVERY  CITIZEN in the interests of community welfare and existence”.

It is therefore very clear that the founder of modern policing did not intend his force to become an elitist (as opposed to a skilled and highly professional) organisation with ever increasing powers over the ordinary law-abiding citizen.Indeed, the original model of policing was for police to work alongside the public AS EQUALS and NOT AS MASTERS and simply assist law-abiding members of the public to maintain law and order in their communities. More precisely, there was never ever any intention for police to usurp the crime deterrant and crime fighting role of the ordinary citizen nor of removing from ordinary members of the public their traditional rights of self-defence(which included the use of deadly force should this be necessary) or citizens arrest. Yet that is precisely what has happened over the last few decades- with predictable consequences

Two other important points also need to be noted. First, the intention was to keep police as independent as possible of both government and the judiciary because it was understood that only be doing this- by remaining strictly independent of powerful minority  elitist interests- could police best fulfil their duties to their real masters-the public.

Second, the intention was to avoid at all costs the para-military model of community control (common then as now in the rest of Europe and elsewhere) because it was considered an inappropriate method of policing a free and wealthy democratic country and would -over time-erode the basic liberties enjoyed by its citizens.

In a New Zealand context this is an important point, because it was precisely this very high level of personal freedom that Maori gained for all New Zealanders when they signed the Treaty of Waitangi.

Having gained a better picture of how police were originally meant to operate, it is easy to see how far they have strayed (or been dragged by successive governments) from their legitimate and traditional function. Viewed from this historical vantage point, our escalating crime rate over the last 40 or so years no longer seems so surprising or so impossible to deal with. What is of concern (even if also not a surprise) is the continued reluctance of police hierarchy to review their long-standing policy on self-defence and defence of property and on active intervention by members of the public when a crime is being committed.

As noted earlier, while there has never been any valid evidence that not intervening when confronted by criminal activity and not resisting when faced with criminal attack is the safest option to take, there has been ample evidence for well over a decade that it is NOT the safest course of action.

National Victims Data from the US in fact suggests that “while victims resisting with knives, clubs, or bare hands are about twice as likely to be injured as those who submit, victims who resist with a gun are only half as likely to be injured as those who put up no defense.”  Of particular interest to women and self-defense, “among those victims using handguns in self-defense, 66 percent of them were successful in warding off the attack and keeping their property. Among those victims using non-gun weapons, only 40 percent were successful.(. Kleck G. Point Blank Ð Guns and Violence in America. New York, NY, Aldine De Gruyter, 1991).

Thus, our present police policy on self-defence and defence of property appears to be an elitist and discriminatory one, based on two tiers of safety . The best (safest and most effective) means of  self-defence and intervention against criminal activity (firearms, mace and pepper sprays and now Tazers) are reserved solely for the professional elite-the police. The second best option of doing nothing and being at the the mercy of violent and often deranged or drug-fueled criminals (a policy that inevitably results in a significant number of innocent victims being needlessly killed or badly injured every year) is what current police policy allows the ordinary citizen.The current police policy is thus openly discriminatory, with ordinary law abiding citizens being treated as second class citizens, as less deserving of the best level of protection than their servants-the police.

Most people would consider this a totally unacceptable situation, and one that needs urgent attention. Indeed, one would be hard put to find a better example of discrimination and abuse of power. It not only verges on  negligence but is also a gross denial of the most basic duty of care. Little wonder that in this present topsy-turvy world of police policy it is the criminals that end up the winners and their victims the losers.

It is surely time police replaced their present discriminatory policy with one based on more recent and scientifically valid evidence and returned to the historically proven concept that the public has a very significant role to play in controlling crime and that the ability (one might well argue need) of law-abiding citizens to effectively protect themselves, their families and their property not only poses no risks to society but in fact confers a huge collective good by detering crime -especially violent crime. Those who seem unwilling to accept this should just ask themselves how many of the violent crimes reported daily in our newspapers could have been deterred, prevented or could have had a different outcome had the victim or some other member of the public been able to intervene as safely as police.

If police are no longer willing to implement measures proven to protect  the public and rapidly reduce crime rates (as has happened in the US) then clearly they are no longer part of the solution but have become part of the problem. If police policymakers are genuine about wanting to reduce crime rates in New Zealand then this is the only proven, evidentially based path to go down. But they need to move quickly , before they lose still more of the most valuable commodity a police force can have-the good will and respect of the long-suffering public.

Sir Robert Peel’s nine rules of policing:

    • The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.
    • The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.
    • Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
    • The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.
    • Police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.
    • Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.
    • Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
    • Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.

The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.