LONDON — Last Saturday, Heythrop College in London hosted a city-wide scavenger hunt for incoming Fordham study abroad students. Fordham students and a smattering of undergraduates from other American universities were treated to the sights and sounds of Regent Street, the London Eye and Covent Garden. One group went as far as Buckingham Palace, where they felt obligated (rightfully so), to engage in the time-honored tourist tradition of bothering a guard for a picture. In this instance, however, the guard in question was not a tall, brightly colored, stiff-upper-lip photo-op with a funny hat. This officer was armed.
In response to the terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo in Paris in early January, the city of London is stepping up police presence at major landmarks such as Buckingham Palace and St. Pancras train station. In a turn of events that I found surprising, some of those officers are armed. Contrary to popular belief, a number of the police in the United Kingdom are allowed to carry weapons. However, the total number of authorized armed officers remains small, at just over 6,500 according to a 2012 survey. That amounts to about five percent of the total police force.
Advocates of unarmed U.K. police officers say that weapons would contradict the idea of “policing by consent.” The way the Metropolitan Police system works presently revolves around the belief that the police report primarily to the public, not the state. That is not just conjecture either. You notice it. From the perspective of an American student, one of the great things about London and one of the reasons I was attracted to studying abroad here, is that there is no language barrier.
Now, that may just sound like I am too lazy to take foreign language classes (and you are not completely wrong there), but the extra sense of familiarity acts as a foil that highlights the things that are different here. There is the obvious: yes, they drive on the opposite side of the road, and coins play a bigger part in everyday transactions than paper money. But there are also cultural differences that you do not really think about. People walk on the opposite side of the sidewalk.
The Tube is cleaner than the subway, and the interior of the trains are color-coordinated with the line they are on, so they are easier to use as well. Also, I have never come across a logically laid-out British bathroom. I guess what I am saying is that while we may share a language with the U.K., the English are just as unique as any other place on earth.
With words like “militant,” “police,” and “gun control” continuing their steady march through the American consciousness, now is as good a time as any to take a closer look at how other countries decide to protect their citizens.
It is impossible to talk about politics or legislation without talking about morals, and while I am not suggesting any sort of wide scale adoption of foreign policing policies, I will say that observing and learning from others is one of the most valuable things a leader can do in an increasingly globalized world. The littlest eccentricities and differences make up the solutions to the greatest problems. Taking a page out of the Metropolitan Police’s book may not be a savior to the police issues the U.S. is facing, but it could be just what the public is waiting for. A start.
While some members of the scavenger hunt were at Buckingham Palace, I was trying to keep up amid the bustle of Piccadilly Circus in a valiant but ultimately fruitless attempt to ask a policeman for directions.
The officer was polite, helpful and, interestingly, unarmed.