Last year, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times. The number of people fatally shot was zero. In 2012 the figure was just one. Even after adjusting for the smaller size of Britain’s population, British citizens are around 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than Americans. Between 2010 and 2014 the police force of one small American city, Albuquerque in New Mexico, shot and killed 23 civilians; seven times more than the number of Brits killed by all of England and Wales’s 43 forces during the same period.
The explanation for this gap is simple. In Britain, guns are rare. Only specialist firearms officers carry them; and criminals rarely have access to them. The last time a British police officer was killed by a firearm on duty was in 2012, in a brutal case in Manchester. The annual number of murders by shooting is typically less than 50. Police shootings are enormously controversial. The shooting of Mark Duggan, a known gangster, which in 2011 started riots across London, led to a fiercely debated inquest. Last month, a police officer was charged with murder over a shooting in 2005. The reputation of the Metropolitan Police’s armed officers is still barely recovering from the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent Brazilian, in the wake of the 7/7 terrorist bombings in London.
In America, by contrast, it is hardly surprising that cops resort to their weapons more frequently. In 2013, 30 cops were shot and killed—just a fraction of the 9,000 or so murders using guns that happen each year. Add to that a hyper-militarised police culture and a deep history of racial strife and you have the reason why so many civilians are shot by police officers. Unless America can either reduce its colossal gun ownership rates or fix its deep social problems, shootings of civilians by police—justified or not—seem sure to continue.
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