SCOTTISH police officers have been training their American counterparts in tackling armed attackers without resorting to “deadly force”.
Representatives from famous forces including the New York Police Department (NYPD) visited Police Scotland’s training college at Tulliallan, Fife, recently amid concerns over a spate of fatal shootings in the United States.
American law enforcement officials are anxious to explore alternatives to police tactics which have led to the deaths of a number of unarmed black men over the past year.
Last year, the city of Ferguson, Missouri, was gripped by a series of protests after a white officer shot dead Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old.
Just a few months later Tamir Rice, 12, was shot and killed in Cleveland, Ohio, after pointing a toy gun at people in a park.
Those who took part in the recent visit to Tulliallan said they had experienced an “epiphany” after learning details of how Police Scotland – a force where 98 per cent of officers are unarmed – manages to deal with those carrying offensive weapons.
While Scotland does not have the same problems with gun violence as the US, lessons have been learned in how to respond to those carrying other weapons without using what the Americans call “deadly force” – a term which does not even enter the lexicon of Scottish policing.
Referring to the black teenager whose death sent shockwaves through UK policing, Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, said American policing had reached its “Stephen Lawrence moment”.
Wexler, who organised the trip to Tulliallan, said there was a need to “restore public confidence” in US policing.
“We’ve been through this period over the last year where there has been significant concern over the police’s use of force,” he said.
“We need to learn how to handle situations that involve knives, rocks, and other weapons without using deadly force.
“It occurred to me there were lessons to be learnt from police in Scotland.
“Their approach in many ways is the exact opposite of ours. We tend to go to a higher level of force when confronted with a weapon, whereas they go to a lower level.”
Wexler, a friend of the former chief constable, Sir Stephen House, said officers from the NYPD were joined by those from Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami on the visit to Scotland.
Federal agencies including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were also in attendance.
“The Americans thought there must be a lot of police getting hurt in Scotland,” he said. “It was a real epiphany for many of them in terms of the different approach. What with the current situation in America at the moment, it was very timely.”
Wexler said principles learned from Police Scotland were now being developed into a new curriculum which will be considered by law enforcement agencies in the US.
Mike Chitwood, the chief of police in Daytona Beach, Florida, said American policing was “missing the boat altogether” in the “respect for human life”.
He told those at Tulliallan that the notion drilled into American officers that it is “better to be judged by 12 than carried by six” is misguided.
Chitwood said he had seen “great cops” destroyed by shootings – even once exonerated – due to the guilt of taking a person’s life.
In contrast to America where police shootings are commonplace, Scottish police have shot civilians only twice in the last decade.
And while more than 30 police officers have died as a result of gunfire and a further three due to assault this year alone in the US, the last policeman killed by violence in Scotland was in 1994.
PC Lewis Fulton, 28, died in the Gorbals area of Glasgow after being stabbed by a schizophrenic he attempted to tackle armed with only a baton.
Assistant chief constable Bernard Higgins, head of operational support for Police Scotland, said the passing of more than 20 years since his colleague’s death showed the tactics work.
“I remember it vividly, unfortunately, because I knew Lewis personally. That doesn’t mean that the officers here aren’t confronted with violence every day of the year; they are.
“Ninety-eight per cent of Scottish police officers are unarmed and they go out and face people on a daily basis with knives and baseball bats and other things.
“As tragic as Lewis’ death was, it did happen in 1994 and thankfully we haven’t had one since. I do know for a fact, however, that we’ve had officers confronted with machetes, axes, all sorts of things.”
Where American officers would likely pull their weapon when confronted with an armed suspect, Higgins said the focus for his officers is on de-escalating the situation by using calming words.
Officers will take a step back and not seek to rush their aggressor. There is also a focus on “tactical relocation”, moving the suspect to an area where he can be better controlled by officers moving “like a boxer in the ring”.
“Aggression will be met with aggression,” he said. “We train our officers to act proportionately and use only the minimum amount of force necessary. We do that from the moment they come into the organisation.
“Policing is policing. How you police in the streets of Chicago might very well be different from how you police in the streets of Glasgow, but the fundamental mission is to deal with those individuals who want to do the most harm in the community and to protect the most vulnerable. A person with a knife in America is no more dangerous than a person with a knife in Scotland, but it’s dealt with completely differently.” Higgins said that while his US colleagues talk of “deadly force”, his own officers speak of “mitigating a threat”. Indeed, he is reluctant to even utter the American phrase.
“There’s a recognition within American law enforcement agencies that there must be an alternative for resolving critical incidents in which there is violence,” he said. “We’ve resolved it using other means, some of them with Tasers some of them with our words. It’s about proportionality.”