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Walking The Beat With An Unarmed Police Officer In Britain


A police shooting in Louisiana this week left a 6-year-old boy dead, making him the youngest of the more than 800 people killed by American law enforcement officers this year, according to analysis by The Washington Post. Two officers who were pursuing the child's father when they killed the boy have been arrested and charged with second-degree murder. The incident - disturbing in its own right - has also become part of the larger debate in this country about the use of deadly force by police. That debate has drawn a lot of international attention, especially in Britain, where gun laws are strict and police officers usually patrol unarmed. NPR's Leila Fadel has more on how the American experience looks to police officers in the U.K.

KAT BROPHY: I'm PC Kat Brophy. And I work in greater Manchester in the city center, and I'm 32. I've been in the police force coming up on nine years now.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Constable Brophy is a beat cop in a diverse area where wealthy, mostly-white neighborhoods on the outskirts of town border poorer neighborhoods where violence is more common.

BROPHY: Two, eight - two, zero, eight - what was the last?


FADEL: This is Brophy's typical workday. She drives through her regular neighborhoods looking for the usual troublemakers and responding to calls on the radio.

BROPHY: I'm about 5-foot-7 at a push. I wear all black really for work - no ironing, thankfully. And I have my stab vest, radio, a few tools to help me and that's about it.

FADEL: Her tools -- a spray can of tear gas, handcuffs and a black baton.

But no gun.

BROPHY: No gun, no Taser, nothing like that.

FADEL: She's never needed one, she says. She's never even had to pull out her baton. Brophy says she is in awe of the dangers of American cops face every day. But Peter Fahy, who retired last month as the chief of greater Manchester police, says Americans shouldn't get the wrong idea about his city. With nearly 3 million people, it's Britain's third- largest.

PETER FAHY: Greater Manchester is not like "Downton Abbey." It is a very big world city, very diverse population and very high levels of deprivation and poverty.

FADEL: Two of Fahy's officers were shot dead in Manchester in 2012. But in the U.K., confrontations between cops and suspects rarely end in death.

FAHY: The crucial aspect really is, you know, the difference in the gun culture. There will be situations where we do end up having to use lethal force. But, for instance, again, the 40-year history of Greater Manchester Police, I think we've only ever shot two people.

FADEL: That's it?

FAHY: Yeah.

FADEL: Police in Britain do face many of the same criticisms as police in the U.S. British cops are six times as likely to stop and search black or South Asian people than white people. Tasers are also disproportionately used against black people. And the prison population - especially the number of young prisoners - is disproportionately black. Sophie Khan heads Britain's Police Action Centre, which helps people with grievances against the police.

SOPHIE KHAN: The chief constables are all white. The deputy chief constables are all white. The assistant chief constables are all white.

FADEL: She says she gets complaints of racial profiling and excessive use of force every day, but they hardly ever involve guns. After mass shootings in the '80s and '90s, Britain's already strict gun laws were tightened still further. Now handguns and semi-automatic weapons are effectively banned. Some criminals still get a hold of firearms, and the police have armed response teams. Bob Pell, head of Specialist Operational Training for the Greater Manchester Police, says officers are taught to avoid confrontation.

BOB PELL: What we look to do is we look to deal with incidents at the lowest level of de-escalation at all times.

FADEL: He teaches officers to keep their distance and to figure out exactly what's going on before moving close to a suspect. Pell was recently in the U.S. discussing training techniques with police there. He says he's full of admiration for American police officers, but he believes some American officers move in too fast, based on videos he's seen of police-involved shootings.

PELL: They were putting themselves so close to danger, it was quite clear that the rationale for that was that they could always revert to the gun on their hip if they had to.

FADEL: As far as Britain's concerned, Pell says he's glad that the U.K. has strict gun laws and that most of his colleagues are not armed.

PELL: The truth of the matter is if you haven't got a gun, you can't use it. And that's the sheer fact.

FADEL: Leila Fadel, NPR News, Manchester. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.