Sunday, May 3, 2009

It's a Fair Cop

This week we share our thoughts on British and American law enforcement.


Okay, let’s get this out of the way from the get go: the biggest difference between cops in the UK and cops in the US is guns. It really mystified me when I came over here and saw cops without any side arms. It still does.

The result of this disparity is apparent if you watch those “Cops With Cameras” shows currently populating our viewing schedule (I call the UK version “Cops Without Guns”). When the UK cops engage in a wild vehicle chase through the village streets and the offender finally fetches up against a stone wall, he always makes a run for it. Wouldn’t you? He’s young and fit and the cop is nearing retirement and weighed down with a Kevlar vest and a utility belt jangling with handcuffs, pepper-spray and other law enforcement do-dads. Frankly, I’m surprised they ever catch anybody. In the US version, after bringing a vehicle to heel, the occupants generally can’t assume the “face-down spread-eagle” position fast enough in order to avoid being shot. Good thing, too; the US cops spend a lot of time in the donut shop; they need the advantage a reliable revolver provides.

But guns aside, the most surprising difference is, in the UK you can be a cop—a real, official, pepper-spray carrying cop—just for the hell of it. They call them “Hobby Bobbies” and they are unpaid volunteers who get genuine police training and some complimentary nylon hand restraints (or maybe not; I just made that part up) in exchange for working a minimum of four hours a week. For free. The trade off is, the police force gets bulked up with a platoon of competent (and, one has to assume, eager) volunteers and the “Special Police”—that’s their official title, but it doesn’t mean they are driven to the police station in the short bus—get to wear a spiffy uniform and enjoy nearly all the powers of an actual, paid police officer. Which, in my view, must stick in the craw of the PCSOs.

The PCSOs (Police Community Support Officers) are sort of police, but not really. They help out, give support (hence the name), take on some of the more menial duties but have no real police powers. They do, however, get a spiffy uniform and a pay check. We have PCSOs in our town, and their main contribution seems to be fooling the public into believing there are more police officers than there really are. The uniforms are identical, save for the insignia, and if you are close enough to read it, you are already nicked.

But in either country, it’s better to stay on their good side; recent TV footage has confirmed that the cops here are pretty keen on thumping people up, even if they aren't allowed to shoot them.


First off, I don’t have a problem with cops carrying guns. They look a bit scary when it’s your friendly local police officer helping children across the road, but I can see why they’re needed here. Everyone else is armed to the teeth so obviously our protectors need to be too, but that’s another debate and we’ve already had it. I do think they ought to leave them at home when they go out for a drink, but apparently most of them carry them at all times. There have been some incidents in the past where an officer’s judgment has been somewhat cloudy and guns were involved. Never a good combo!

On the whole I find US police officers a lot more “normal” than the ones I encountered in England (on very few occasions I might add). Here, you can talk to them as if they live next door, whereas in England I remember a frisson of nervousness when addressing anyone in the police uniform, even if it was only to ask for directions. (And don’t get me started on the withering sarcasm that British bobbies are capable of.) The only “friendly” thing you must never do here, is get out of your car if you’re pulled over. You wait in the car with your window down and your hands clearly visible. If you step out of the vehicle, they will draw their weapons. Apparently more than one British tourist has fainted at this point.

Probably most confusing over here is the fact that cops come in various hues. The standard ones wear the dark uniform, much like British police except with a big fat holster at their hips. If you drive on many expressways (motorways) however, you often see a fetching beige and brown car with “Sheriff” or “State Trooper” along the side. These guys usually have the same powers as the ‘regular’ police, so it’s a good idea to get yourself off the phone and under the speed limit when you see them – and no smart comments about men in tights.

Educational Tip - A little know fact in the States is that May 1st is Law Day. In 1958 President Eisenhower proclaimed Law Day to strengthen the American heritage of liberty, justice and equality under the law. Each year, the Law Day theme is different, for example, in 2005 it was “The American Jury: We the People in Action”. Awards are given to groups and individuals who organize activities to support Law Day.

OK, classed dismissed!

Have a suggestion for a Pond Parleys discussion? E-mail us or just leave it here as a comment.


  1. I'm reminded of Robin Williams talking about British police carrying no guns and how they must shout, "Stop! Or I'll shout 'Stop' again!"

    In truth, based on my knowledge of US TV cop shows, I don't think US police are meant to shoot you in the back if you run away either.

    "The uniforms are identical, save for the insignia, and if you are close enough to read it, you are already nicked."

    Except as you say they have no arrest powers, so you're more likely to hear: "Please wait here and wait for my colleague to arrive so he can arrest you."

  2. Mr. Potato: "Please wait here and wait for my colleague to arrive so he can arrest you." -- Strangely, that's absolutely true, but even more strange is the fact that they often do wait.

  3. What about sirens? About a decade ago, I could have said how much I prefer the good old nee-nah nee-nah of the British cops, compared to the weee-ahweee-ahweee-ah squeal of the Americans. But now I think they're the same. That's globalisation for you.

  4. The funniest thing in Chicago is that the cars have a loudspeaker thing on the top, so if the police can't be bothered to get out, they just shock the living daylights out of everyone by bellowing through the speaker.

  5. Iota: the police sirens over here are still of the weee-ahweee variety, though there seems to be several setting they can use for straight runs, traffic lights, some idiot in front of them that won't move, etc. It helps people (except that one idot) be more aware of them. But the mainstay is still the standard weee-ahweee (what we Americans refer to as "Ann Frank" sirens).

  6. A friend of mine down the lane is a policeman at Stansted airport. He does something 'special' regarding a category that includes dignitaries and terrorists. He says because people didn't grow up with armed police, they respect police authority as a given. And when police are armed, as with airports, people act almost insulted, as if their historical sense of order has been challenged. Perhaps it has to do with people already being a bit anxious in an airport then to see Big Guns sauntering amongst them, it all becomes a bit much.

    I know that when I first moved to the UK 19 years ago I was used to seeing armed police from growing up in the States, but I was not used to the Big Guns at an airport and found it alarming rather than reassuring. This was the time of the reprisal of IRA bombings and I always wondered at the efficacy of a gun against a bomb anyway.

    Sirens. I seem to hear both kinds. Does it depend on the location?

  7. I think the more modern sirens must be arbitrary as I definitely hear the older Nee-naw ones up north.

  8. I'm sorry, but I still chuckle when I see the show "Brit Cops" on the TV guide.

  9. hello, just came across you through the british mummy bloggers group, love the site. I have to comment on the cop thing. I have several friends in the UK who are police officers. It is seen as a fairly normal career choice for a middle class person with a degree back home. Whereas here (in CA at least) it seems that, though very nice and all, police officers are from a different world, I do not know any cops socially, and my US friends do not encourage their kids to pursue the law as a career.


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