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UK police constable shares his view on policing in Detroit

detroit police car
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

If you’re a police officer in the United Kingdom, chances are you don’t carry a gun.

In fact, you might go through your entire career and never fire a weapon, a stark contrast to police on this side of the Atlantic.

Michael Matthews is a police constable with the London Metropolitan Police and is now attached to Scotland Yard. He’s just spent time shadowing Detroit police officers, conducting research for a book Matthews is writing about the Detroit Police Department.

Matthews joined the police in London in 1994. He worked for a few years at Heathrow Airport, where he did carry a gun. He’s already released one book, We Are the Cops: The Real Lives of America’s Police, after visiting a number of American police departments all across the country.

He tells us he’s more or less always had a fascination with America’s police. A lot of the media he was exposed to growing up was American, giving him a glimpse into “a completely different world.”

“The police in the U.S. are so different to how they are in the U.K.,” he says, “or they certainly look that different when you watch it on television.”

"The police in the U.S. are so different to how they are in the U.K."

Policing in the U.K. can still be exciting and dangerous, Matthews explains, but can seem almost mundane compared to the way American police are portrayed.

“In fact,” he says, “before I joined the Metropolitan Police in London, I actually telephoned the American embassy in London asking how I could become a cop in New York.”

Matthews first visited Detroit some 12 years ago, and of all the places in America he’d visited, he says Detroit stood out the most.

“Detroit just seemed that bit more extreme. I call it ‘extreme policing’ in Detroit. Policing can be exciting and dangerous all over the country, but Detroit, the environment that these cops work in, the danger they work in, just the feel and the look of certain parts of Detroit … it just seemed that bit more exciting, that bit more dangerous and that bit more extreme,” he says.

On his most recent trip to Detroit, Matthews spent a couple weeks embedded with a gang intelligence unit. He tells us he traveled with the unit on surveillance missions and witnessed a gun arrest as well as a raid on a known dope house. “All sorts of exciting stuff, and very eye-opening stuff,” he says.

He tells us he was also introduced to a former gang member named Ray working with students in East English Village.

“He sat me down with gang members who attended the school, and he works with them, bringing them together, trying to get them onto the right path,” Matthews says. “It is very revealing and very interesting to sit and speak to these boys who were all enemies once, in different gangs, and now coming together, and they’re friends. It just shows that you can get away from these gangs, and the work that Ray is doing with the DPD and the school, you know, it has a great effect.”

Matthews tells us that police work in Detroit can be just as exciting as the shows he grew up watching.

"In 21 years' service, I've had one incident where a guy's come at me with a gun."

“A good example of that, just the other day, I was out with the cops, and here comes this guy out of the house holding a gun, looking like he’s going to shoot us. I mean, this isn’t a daily occurrence in the U.K.”

London isn’t short on tough neighborhoods, but according to Matthews you’d be more likely to see that same guy come at you armed with a knife than with a firearm.

“Knife crime is certainly more prevalent in the U.K. than gun crime, and the reason for that is our gun control is extremely strict. There are guns on the streets of London and the U.K., of course there are, and there are shootings. But certainly not to the level that you see over here,” Matthews says.

“I mean, in 21 years’ service, I’ve had one incident where a guy’s come at me with a gun.There will be officers that will go their entire years – and we do 30 years in the U.K. – they will go their entire careers and never have an incident involving a gun. They might not even see a gun.”

Of the U.K.’s some 130,000 police officers, Matthews tells us only about 6,000 of them are trained in firearms. “Not all of them are carrying, that’s just who’s trained,” he says.

In Matthew’s experience, neither the public nor the police force have much of an appetite for arming their officers. Some officers, according to Matthews, have even threatened to leave the force if they were required to carry a gun.

“Most police officers don’t want guns. We just don’t have a gun culture in the U.K., and that’s no criticism of the U.S., you know, it’s just two different cultures,” he says.

There is talk of raising that number slightly in light of elevated terrorism threat levels, but Matthews tells us that officers who handle day-to-day policing will continue to serve without carrying.

Instead, he tells us police officers on patrol in the U.K. generally carry extendable metal batons, a can of pepper spray and handcuffs.

He hopes to release his book on the Detroit Police Department next year.

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