Why did the Boys in Blue Turn into the Boys in Black? (Part 1)

Photo of Kevin Donoghue, Solicitor discusses militarisation of 'the boys in blue'.

Kevin Donoghue, Solicitor discusses militarisation of ‘the boys in blue’.

By Kevin Donoghue, solicitor


“our police have never, and will never, routinely carry guns or hide behind military style equipment.”

The Rt Hon Theresa May MP, speaking on 23 July 2015

“Home secretary authorises Taser X2 for police in England and Wales despite concerns over deaths and serious injuries”

The Guardian, 2 March 2017


Take a minute to think what members of the armed forces look like and the equipment available to them. What do they wear? Does it look like “tactical” dress? Do they wear body armour? Are they wearing military helmets? Are they armed with guns or other lethal weapons? Are they carrying kit which, if used in combination, could kill or seriously injure suspects?

Now think about what they are using to get around. Are they in armoured vehicles?

Lastly, ask yourself what techniques they use to deal with situations. Do they use methods which may cause disquiet in non-emergency situations? Under certain circumstances can they take lives?

Boys in Blue Go Black

If you answered “yes” to the above as well as describing our armed forces you have also just described Britain’s police. “Dixon of Dock Green” in his frock coat and whistle is long gone. Consider the following:

  1. Armed officers are an increasingly common sight on our streets, and there are more to come.
  2. Officers routinely wear body armour (stab or bulletproof vests, depending on their role). In crowd control situations, police also wear so-called NATO helmets, carry riot shields, and use batons, the footage below of the assault of Ian Tomlinson by PC Simon Harwood shows. Mr Tomlinson died as a result of internal bleeding after PC Harwood struck him with his baton and pushed him to the ground:

  1. The police are using more, and more powerful Tasers. The new X2 Taser will soon replace the outdated X26. It has a dual-shot capacity, laser guidance, and can be used to trigger a warning arc, which maker Taser calls the “arc of justice”. Tasers, described as “less-lethal” rather than “non-lethal”, have been involved in 17 deaths in the UK, including the tragic case of Andrew Pimlott. He died after suffering severe burns from the Taser “discharge-induced ignition of petrol”.
  2. Officers have access to CS and PAVA (a.k.a. “pepper”) irritant sprays, both of which the police describe as “riot control agents” despite their frequent use in other situations. They are prohibited weapons under section 5(1)(b) of the Firearms Act 1968. (The police have a lawful excuse to have them.)
  3. More forces are issuing spit hoods (a.k.a. “spit guards”) which have caused or contributed to deaths in custody, particularly when combined with CS or PAVA irritant sprays.
  4. The Metropolitan Police Service has a fleet of Jankel armoured vehicles, designed for “high readiness fire-arms support”, “public order/ riot control vehicle”, and “counter terrorist and hostage rescue intervention” among other things.
  5. Police officers use potentially deadly techniques during their work. When restraining people they use methods which can result in restricting a victim’s breathing and, in the worst cases, cause death due to positional asphyxia. (Read this case study to find out how one of our clients suffered due to this technique. Thankfully, he survived.) Forces also use mass containment techniques such as “kettling”, where the police keep people in cordons and prevent them from leaving, or having access to food, water, toilets, or medical facilities. The chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority’s civil liberties panel described one such kettle video as “appalling”, and encouraged protesters to make official complaints.
  6. Even police officer uniforms have changed from dark blue to black which a Conservative MP described as having “a kind of fascist, militaristic appearance”. The thin blue line should be re-named.

So, Bobby is now a Tommy. Theresa May’s comment that the police don’t hide behind military style equipment does not ring true. But why did the boys in blue turn into the boys in black, and what does it mean for us?

This is the first in a 3-part series. Next week we’ll consider why, and how, the police became militarised. Read Part 2 and Part 3 here (open in new tabs).