In the event that anyone reading this lives in a cave, or is the descendant of a Japanese soldier still fighting World War II, you may not know that Britain has something of a problem with violent crime. In fact, knife crime has become such an issue that, as one anonymous police officer told The Guardian: ‘I can expect, at the very least, to respond to at least two to three crimes involving knives a month, and that is being generous. Attackers have pulled knives on me. My colleagues – friends – have been stabbed in front of me. I’ve found myself many times kneeling on the pavement holding parts of bodies together. We are simply not equipped: most of the time when a violent crime comes in, it’s only hope that we can depend on.’

Shocking stuff, but it gets worse, for the officer goes on to write ‘I don’t mind admitting I’m scared going out on these jobs. I realise it’s part of my duty as a police officer, but the trouble is, I no longer feel we’re in control…our duties are being stretched beyond our capabilities…the service that we’re actually able to provide to the public, in terms of reporting your crime, is shocking.’

It isn’t, admittedly, a great indictment of the safety of the UK’s streets, which have certainly been places to be wary of in my lifetime, which they apparently weren’t in the two generations preceding it. The UK police, being demonstrably overwhelmed as they are, have called for another 20,000 officers to be recruited, but it is an increasingly unattractive career: the police have never enjoyed the universal respect given to the Armed Forces, but now that officers are openly admitting to the media how much they’re struggling, it’s hard to imagine police recruiters being inundated with applications.

Police being given a briefing at Trafalgar Square in London. EPA-EFE//ANDY RAIN

Also, the policemen I’ve come into contact with in the UK were not, in truth, all that inspiring: when the windows of our home were smashed (because if drunk hooligans don’t have nice things, nobody else can either), a lone young policeman came to talk to us. He was a nice lad, but tall and lanky, and I’d not have given him much chance confronting intoxicated louts spoiling for a fight. I’m mentally comparing him with some French police officers I once watched close in around a fleeing thief: it wasn’t just that the Frenchmen had weapons, it was the fact that their combined weight looked as though it came to about a metric tonne in muscle; one of them had a tattoo of the rope and anchor of the French Marines, which didn’t surprise me. The point is, these Frenchmen looked as though they’d rather tear criminals limb from limb than eat their dinners, which is what I want in a country’s police force.

I have recorded elsewhere on these pages Britain’s problem with violence, but I have hit upon rather a novel solution – send in the troops.

That statement, I admit, comes across as being a little abrasive – the sort of thing Pinochet or Putin might use to justify using live rounds to disperse pro-democracy protestors. However, this suggestion is not as radical as it might seem at first glance.

To begin with, there is precedent for this, though not on the scale that I envisage. Members of the Armed Forces (principally the Army, if memory serves) routinely took over from firemen during their strikes of the early 2000s, and during the security measures for the 2012 Olympics games, 17,000 members of the Armed Forces assisted in providing security (4,000 more people than the number provided by the police).

The quoted article from The Guardian is dated May 2019, but 2020 statistics support the rising trend in violence against the police. It also appears unlikely that this will subside, particularly as assaulting police officers seems to have had repercussions which are, arguably, somewhat less than severe; the BBC reports that a man named Jamie Williams was convicted of assaulting PC Nick Morley and handed a suspended sentence of 18 months and banned from driving for two years (the incident involved a car). Knowing that the police are not an inexorable force of justice, that officers can be hurt or even killed and the perpetrators escape justice or be given a light sentence is not going to deter anyone from raising their hands against the authorities.

Much is made of the figure of 20,000, alternately cited as the number of officers reduced and the number of officers needed to tackle Britain’s crime problem. Yet COVID-19 has brought with it a host of economic woes, so it is unlikely that the government are going to be able to suddenly reinvest a substantial sum into policing any time soon. However, with the substantial operational deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq now over, the Armed Forces do not currently have a war to prepare for; it is not as though this proposal would be as damaging to the military as it would have been in the period of 2006-2012, taking away troops getting ready to rotate into Helmand Province during the height of operations. Also, it would obviously not require the deployment of the entirety of the Armed Forces.

Further precedence for military personnel working within law enforcement structures can also be found abroad. Both France and Italy maintain national law enforcement forces composed of soldiers who carry out a policing role (the French Gendarmerie and Italian Carabinieri); although policing within their home borders is their primary role, their military status means that they have also deployed on NATO missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, their special operations units in particular.

What my suggested solution to the UK’s crime problem would look like would entirely depend on how severe UK police commanders feel the problem is. Admittedly, the proposal brings to mind images of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, with rifle-toting British troops patrolling the streets of Derry and Belfast – yet this would not necessarily need to be the case. The Armed Forces do run riot control programs, so arming soldiers with weapons more suited for law enforcement purposes (batons, tasers, riot shields etc.) would be an option.

The 2012 Olympic precedent could be made use of and expanded. If the writer of The Guardian article is seen as being fairly representative of the Met’s officers, it could be advised that a section (or squad – ie. ten men) of soldiers or Marines accompany any police patrols dispatched to deal with any reports of trouble. It is not a negative reflection on any police officer that they are struggling to deal with extreme violence, since this is simply not in their remit; therefore it may be prudent to bring in people under whose jurisdiction this comes. It may also be an effective deterrent: with reports of such damaging blows to police morale and effectiveness being reported on Sky News, the BBC, and in The Guardian, it could well be the case that those who would have previously hesitated to assault police officers will now be emboldened, knowing that the officers will be frightened, in small numbers, and (by their own admission) unable to respond effectively. One wonders if any potential attacker would be as brave knowing the police will be accompanied by a squad of paratroopers or Marines.

Naturally, any military personnel assigned to this role would have to undergo something akin to the pre-deployment training undertaken before operations overseas, principally helping them learn how they can best serve with their police counterparts. It would be important to stress that the military would be under police authority – hopefully, this would dispel any accusation of the government ‘militarizing’ the police, a charge often (fairly) leveled at some law enforcement agencies in the US.

British Army soldiers, along with armed police, patrol the streets near the Houses of Parliament in London. EPA-EFE//FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

However, while any soldiers or Marines assisting police officers should perhaps not be armed with their standard-issue L85A3 rifles and instead take non-lethal weapons, it would perhaps be advisable to maintain an armed QRF (Quick Reaction Force) of armed soldiers in the (apparently likely) event that the police are called to deal with firearm-related criminal activity. Again, this would necessitate close cooperation with CO19 armed police officers and cross-training in how armed policing is different from military combat.

This proposal may seem somewhat drastic – but if the reports and statistics are to be believed, it could be argued that desperate times call for desperate measures. The true conservative perspective is that the armed criminal prepared to maim or kill does not deserve excessive, or censorious understanding: the country does not need more outreach programmes for ‘young offenders’, it needs some harsher punishments. One might also argue that attempting to understand rather than punish criminal behaviour absolves the perpetrator from blame and is, in fact, an insult to the police officers who have been hurt or killed in the line of duty.

It is, in my view, worth trying – at this point, it probably can’t make things any worse.


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