The Shock of Ferguson: I Grew Up in a Country Where Most Cops Don't Even Have a Gun

08/15/2014 05:11 pm ET | Updated Oct 15, 2014
Alex Gardels

I've lived in America for nine years now, and one of the most important survival skills I've learned is to always check my rearview mirror for cop cars. I have learned to fear the cops.

You see, I grew up in a country where the majority of police officers don't have and proudly insist they don't want guns. The few British police who may be armed (AFOs) are not allowed to carry a firearm unless authorized by a senior officer. In the UK from 2012 to 2014, there have been no deaths due to police shootings. In 2011 and 2012, AFOs only opened fire a total of five times.

"In the UK from 2012 to 2014, there have been no deaths due to police shootings."

While racist policing undoubtedly exists in the UK, it hasn't torn the heart of the nation in two to the same extent it has segregated America. Growing up in the UK, I thought of the cops as losers who couldn't get a decent job and instead wore stupid dayglo yellow jackets and silly hats and spent the majority of their time dealing with annoying drunk people.

"In terms of the police being approachable, in terms of the public being the eyes and ears of the police, officers don't want to lose that," former Met deputy assistant commissioner Brian Paddick told the BBC in 2012. "Every case in which a police officer has shot someone brings home to unarmed officers the sheer weight of responsibility that their colleagues face."

My friends and family back in the UK express horror at the regularity of cops killing young black males in America. My right-wing father -- himself a gun owner under the UK's stringent laws -- regularly tells me to "watch out" when he hangs up the phone. He's not talking about black kids in hoodies buying skittles and iced tea, but about cops. Watch out for the cops.

"I have learned to fear the cops."

Unlike in the UK, there is no database of police shootings in the US. However, according to a database by a criminal law professor and former FBI agent, police shot 1,100 people, killing 607, in 2011 alone. Of course, it's worse if you're black. A cop killed a black person nearly two times a week during a seven-year period ending in 2012, according to accounts reported to the FBI.

In the UK, a police shooting is rare, very controversial and is immediately investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission and dominates the news for years to come. In America, it is practically a daily event, investigated by those who perpetrated such violence: the police themselves.

Guns are simply not as available in the UK due to strict gun control. There are lower levels of gun violence, and therefore, police have less need to defend themselves. The death and injury of police officers in the UK is rare -- 256 police officers were shot from 1945 to 2012. The last time a British cop was killed by a firearm on duty was in 2012. Compare that to America, where 64 cops were killed in 2013 alone and 74 so far this year, according to a database by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

"Guns are simply not as available in the UK due to strict gun control."

We need only take a brief glance at the reporting of Michael Brown's death in the American media and compare it to the right-wing UK media (hardly renowned for its integrity) to get an indication at how skewed American perception is. In America, civil unrest sparked by righteous anger, outrage and fear is somehow frowned upon, as if the horrific events leading up to yet another young black body in the morgue has somehow not earned the distrust of the community.

As a Brit, I suppose I knew all this before I came here, haunted as a child by grainy TV images of Rodney King being beaten by the LAPD. I never considered America to have the kind of cops you beckoned over when you wanted to know where the nearest restroom was. But it wasn't until I was reporting on Occupy LA's raid by the LAPD that I became exposed to the darker side of US policing firsthand. I watched cops beat peaceful activists with batons in a quiet side street. I wrote about it. Then LA Mayor Villaraigosa later alleged that I had lied about this on CNN.

"I never considered America to have the kind of cops you beckoned over when you wanted to know where the nearest restroom was."

I watched a friend of mine get physically assaulted by a cop while protesting outside a downtown jail. I regularly saw the dispossessed and the homeless harassed by police. These days, I watch my friendly, kind, gentle home owning neighbors get handcuffed and searched without arrest, citation or charge on a weekly basis -- simply because they are black in a neighborhood which is rapidly becoming gentrified, run by officious action committees comprised of affluent white developers.

I am white, female, well-educated, middle-class and have a comical British accent. I have no doubt that I look, by the laws of bigotry, relatively innocuous. I look like the kind of person who dials 911, confident -- like James Comstock -- that whoever answers the phone will serve my needs and not turn up at my house and shoot me. I see my white neighbors call the cops on a regular basis, with a misplaced assurance in whatever passes for "justice" in this country -- an assurance that black and brown people will never have.

Neighbors are playing their music too loud? Call the cops. Don't like the look of those group of black teenagers smoking weed on your street at 11pm? Call the cops. Pregnant woman brings her chihuahua into the Farmers Market? Call the cops. Homeless person in the cereal aisle of Wholefoods? Call the cops.

I can't even remember myself or a family member calling the police in the UK. The only person I know who had the bobbies called on him had forgotten to pay a hundred pound taxi fare because he had walked into his house blind drunk at 1 a.m. to get his wallet and passed out comatose on the bed.

In America, 911 calls can kill. Those calls are being made to cops who may be like those who killed unarmed, black male Michael Brown, unarmed black male Ezell Ford, unarmed black male John Crawford , unarmed black male Dante Parker, unarmed black male Eric Garner and on and on.

I have learned to fear the police and to know that to call the police on someone -- particularly someone of color -- could mean committing an abusive act against another human being. Too many cops intimidate, abuse and strike fear into the hearts of Americans in order to maintain a semblance of order and control decreed as necessary by the government. Too often the government fails to seriously condemn these killings and admits their complicity when another farcical police investigation exonerates another officer and puts him -- and his gun -- back on the street.