Michael Matthews, a Londoner, and George Fisher, a native of Martha’s Vineyard, know a lot about being cops (from the English phrase “constable on patrol”) and the societies in which they operate.
Mr. Matthews, an English police officer for the past 20 years and author, and Mr. Fisher, an Oak Bluffs officer and former police chief who retired after 35 years in 2011, have compared notes often about policing over the course of their 12-year friendship, with a focus on the U.S. gun culture.
Mr. Matthews, 41, is married and lives in London, England. He is a constable with the Metropolitan Police Service of London (the Met). On his U.S. visits, he talks and rides with cops in small towns and big cities from Oak Bluffs to Detroit, New York, an Alaskan outpost and L.A.
He has written a book, “We Are The Cops: The Real Lives of America’s Police,” published by
Silvertailbooks.com, London, U.K.
Both men talked with The Times recently on a sunny Friday morning at Mr. Fisher’s Edgartown home. No surprise the chat became a heavy lifter, given the continuing spotlight on American police and race relations following highly reported police-related shootings in Maryland, Missouri, and Oklahoma, as well as the recent arrest and alleged suicide of Sandra Bland following a traffic stop in Texas.
Mr. Matthews has spent more than a decade investigating why American civilians and cops shoot each other at a rate 70 times greater than the rest of the First World combined, whether there is a better way to police in America, and how cops fit and don’t fit into our violent American culture.
“Without question, social media, including police dashcams, has been the biggest change,” he said.
Both men smile easily and listen intently, and their eyes always pay attention, as cops do. Mr. Matthews is the son of a London bobby, went to university for a year, then took the cop’s exam and went out on the street, a bobby with a billy club but no gun. He works out of the Met police station in Scotland Yard.
“It’s got this international reputation, but it’s the London Met police headquarters building, and a lot of detective bureaus are based there,” Mr. Matthews said.
“Last year, not one English cop was shot to death in London or anywhere else in the U.K.,” he said. “In the U.S., 126 cops were killed last year, 47 by gunshot.”
More than 30,000 Americans died of gunshot last year, about the same number as died on our highways. The majority of shooting deaths in America are suicides, self-inflicted gunshot wounds, according to national statistical reporting. Depending on whose numbers you believe, police officers shot and killed between 400 and 800 individuals.
Mr. Matthews said his fascination with America’s gun culture and its cops began with a diet of U.S. cop shows as a kid, and led to a self-directed study that began, he said, with then Sergeant George Fisher and a visit to the Oak Bluffs Police Department.
“I was visiting Martha’s Vineyard and dropped into the police station, met George, and we became friends,” Mr. Matthews recalled.
Impact of guns
Mr. Matthews and Mr. Fisher talked about the impact of societal changes and values on policing from London to Detroit and in Oak Bluffs.
“Social media is the difference today,” Mr. Matthews said. “Policing has not changed. Cops don’t behave differently. Social media provides a look at behavior that was OK before and is now under scrutiny. And young people seem happy to challenge police now. That was not so a dozen years ago.”
“Guns, without a doubt, are the biggest difference between U.S. and U.K. policing models. Only six or seven thousand of Britain’s 130,000 cops carry guns. We have gangs just as you do, but they are not armed to the teeth with paramilitary weapons, as they are in the States,” Mr. Matthews said.
An estimated 1,150,000 Americans are gang members, according to 2014 statistics. Sworn municipal police officers in the United States totaled 809,000 in 2008, according to a U.S. Justice Department census.
“The police here have to be armed with the high-tech weaponry they are facing, including assault rifles,” Mr. Matthews said. “Police officers are people, that’s all. They have families they want to go home to every night, just like everyone else. Disarm the gangs. Take the guns off the street, and the violence will go down.”
Mr. Fisher noted the armament change in just one generation of policing, from revolvers to automatics. “In 1977, when I joined the force, a .38 caliber six-shot revolver was the standard firearm,” he said.
Recently, the Washington Post ran a story on policing that quoted a senior British law enforcement official, who said that British cops “tend to fear getting it wrong and being criticized by a judge. Cops in the U.S. fear getting shot. Those are two very different worlds.”
Indeed. Mr. Matthews said one person in England was shot and killed by police last year. For the past decade, British cops have rarely discharged their weapons, some years not at all.
“Granted, the U.S. population is six times greater than England’s, but the numbers of civilians and police killed here are hundreds of times higher than in England. And that’s not a criticism, it’s a difference in culture,” he said.
His opinions are echoed in his book. “I didn’t want to write a book about funny cop stories,” he told The Times.
Mr. Matthews said the book is intended to be a window, a way of showing what it’s really like to be a cop in the U.S. in their words. His book is nontheoretical, a gritty, often brutal telling of cops’ lives, on and off the job.
In the spotlight
The dynamics of policing reflected in video are ultimately helpful, although it is important to understand agendas, Mr. Matthews said. “The public has a right to challenge police methods,” he said. “This is a democracy. Social media helps to identify bad cops. The problem is whether there is an agenda beyond what the video and social media reports — that is, do we or do we not have all the facts?”
Mr. Matthews does not see a police crisis, but he does think America is going through enormous change. The police haven’t changed; they are using accepted policing standards and methods. “What’s changed is that the public is more liberal, particularly its younger people, and policing style is going to change,” he said.
Mr. Matthews and Mr. Fisher see a different style among younger cops, particularly a willingness to challenge veteran cops. “They challenge us,” Mr. Fisher said. “Older cops are surprised at the reaction of young cops to them.”
Both men are concerned for young cops. “Policing is all about communication, and younger officers come from a generation of texters and electronic communicators,” Mr. Matthews said. “Many don’t communicate well.”
Mr. Fisher agreed. “You need both hands-on and communication skills, but there are young cops who can’t communicate well, and are not prepared to be physical if the situation warrants it,” he said.
Good communication is particularly important for Island policing, Mr. Matthews said. “This may be the greatest place in the world. There’s an underbelly here, like all places, but the public and the police interact. There is a community-policing aspect here, and the balance is spot-on,” he said.
Mr. Fisher said that in many respects, the Island and England share similarities in style. “I’m no in-depth-analysis expert, but I don’t see a lot of contrast between the European policing model and how we operate on this Island,” Mr. Fisher said. “And policing here is different than on the mainland. Cops here are more proactive, more involved in the community, because they live in the community so they’re invested in it. Policing on home turf has its problems, but the benefits outweigh them.
“Cops here have a sense of accountability for what’s going on,” Mr. Fisher said.
He has seen many examples where cops intercept kids heading in the wrong direction. “Later on, they will tell you, ‘You helped me out back then. Best thing that ever happened to me,’” he said.
“You could argue, actually, that guns were more prevalent in this country 50 years ago, but today you have a criminal element that regard life as expendable. They are less cautious about shooting police officers. I would say that gun calls are different today,” Mr. Fisher said.
Mr. Fisher noted that getting perspective is more difficult. “Media coverage plays into it. Coverage is 24/7, compared with 30 minutes in the morning and at night a generation ago. In 1927, if a gunman shot several people in Peoria, the country didn’t get constant coverage for days,” he said.
“The bottom line is that people expect the police to mitigate and resolve, hopefully without violence, but with violence if necessary,” he said.
Asked about whether our Island paradise needs a SWAT team, Mr. Matthews said, “I flew with a deputy sheriff in Alaska by bush plane to a remote town. Nothing going on specifically, but we got a lot of hard stares, and I thought, ‘This cop comes into this environment with a Glock, and backup two hours away?’ Martha’s Vineyard is a wonderful community, but in the case of a major event, you would have to rely on your own resources for a long time,” he said.
Detroit is Mr. Matthews’ favorite police department. “I love how the police in Detroit do their jobs,” Mr. Matthews said. “Such a hard job in such a tough city. They could leave the city, work someplace else, but they don’t. They show up every day.”