Monday, December 05, 2005

US cop quits 'too risky' UK force - The Sunday Times, UK

US cop quits 'too risky' UK force

David Leppard

A TEXAN patrol officer who became the first foreigner to join the British police is to resign after three years because he says policing is too dangerous here compared with America.

Ben Johnson, a 6ft 4in former paratrooper nicknamed Slim, has written to his chief constable asking to carry a Glock 17 handgun on his routine beat in Reading.

He said officers are dying unnecessarily because they are less well equipped and trained to protect themselves and the public than their American counterparts.

“The risks required to be taken by unarmed and poorly trained British police are too great for me to continue being a police officer and I will be resigning my commission in a few weeks,” said Johnson.

“I am tired of my colleagues dying when, if they were better trained and equipped, they would have a fighting chance of survival.”

Johnson’s decision was prompted by the murder of PC Sharon Beshenivsky, a mother of three children and two step-children, who was shot during a robbery in Bradford last month. He said her death demonstrated the lack of training and equipment given to British police.

“Beshenivsky did the one thing that officers in America are trained not to do. She walked up to the front entrance of a business during an alarm call. If the incident had happened in America, she would never have done that. She would almost certainly have been alive today.”

Last week Johnson wrote to Sara Thornton, acting chief constable of Thames Valley police, asking to be armed on patrol. “If the chief authorises me to carry a pistol, then I will not be resigning,” he said. “But that is an impossibility. I now have the choice of continuing in a dangerous job, ill-trained and ill-equipped, or leaving the profession I have loved.”

Johnson, 34, served as a paratrooper in the American army before joining the police department in Garland, a Dallas suburb. Like other officers he carried a Glock 22 pistol as a sidearm, supported by a 12-bore shotgun and an AR15 semi-automatic rifle in his patrol car. In America he routinely confronted armed criminals and received 10 commendations for his bravery.

He came to Britain three years ago to live with his fiancée Louise, an IT consultant. He was able to join the Thames Valley force because of a change in regulations that lifted the bar on foreigners.

The couple are now married and Johnson has taken a short career break to look after their 18-month-old daughter Catherine. He said fatherhood had changed his perspective. “It would not be fair [to my family] to continue in a job that is being made more dangerous by a refusal to modernise,” he said.

It was an incident earlier this year that first caused Johnson to consider handing in his warrant card. He was on plainclothes CID duty when he was called to the Royal Berkshire hospital in Reading to interview a victim of domestic violence.

A woman had jumped out of a first-floor window to escape her violent boyfriend, paralysing her from the waist down. The boyfriend, a member of a drug gang, was already wanted by the police for attempted murder, after shooting someone in the back of the head in London.

Johnson and other plainclothes officers who went to the hospital were alerted that the boyfriend had telephoned to say he was coming to see her. They also received a warning that he might be armed.

According to Johnson, he wanted to arrest the man when he arrived, but was ordered by a senior officer not to do so because of the risk. The suspect escaped and it was two days before he was arrested.

“That was the first time I’d ever let someone wanted for attempted murder simply walk away from me,” said Johnson. “It went against everything I knew. I thought it was my duty to arrest these people.
“It seems that in Britain ordinary officers are instructed not to engage with dangerous criminals. But if police officers can’t engage with them, who can?” He is critical of Charles Clarke, the home secretary, who says he can see “no evidence” that arming officers would reduce the number of police fatalities. “With all respect to the home secretary, he has never answered a 999 call,” said Johnson.

Of Beshenivsky’s murder, he said: “I have been in exactly those situations on patrol in America and I have managed to arrest and disarm offenders without being harmed.”

In America, officers spend weeks learning how to cope with armed incidents. But in Britain, Johnson said, he was never shown how to handle or unload a firearm or told how to respond to an armed robbery. “Officers spend more time learning about how to process paperwork than dealing with violent situations. We are trained more like social workers than police officers.

“The training I received in Britain in dealing with armed incidents was virtually non-existent. It consisted of a 30-minute lecture from a firearms officer who said: ‘If you see the business end of a gun or anyone holding a gun . . . turn, run and get away as quickly as possible’.”

This apparent complacency was reinforced at his swearing-in ceremony when a senior Thames Valley officer told him and colleagues that they would not face the sort of dangerous incidents portrayed on The Bill, the television programme.

“I was surprised that he said we wouldn’t come into harm’s way. This went against everything I had learnt during my career,” said Johnson.

By contrast, the chief officer of Garland police department tells new recruits that it is his task to ensure they are prepared and equipped to face any threat.

Johnson accepted that America is more violent than Britain, with a gun culture contributing to a murder rate 17 times higher than here. He recognised, too, that many more police officers are murdered in America — 57 last year compared with just one here — proportionately about 11 times as many.

But he maintained that British police are far more exposed to danger when confronted with armed offenders than their US counterparts. He said he did not want all police armed — just the “first responders”, officers who, like Beshenivsky, are first on the scene of crimes. He believed this would mean arming about half of Britain’s 140,000 police.

A spokesman for Thames Valley police said: “PC Johnson is currently on a career break. These are his personal views and he did not discuss them with anyone before going to the press.”

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