Peter Pringle's America: Armed and dangerous

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The Independent Online
SECURITY can be a dicey business. Take the case of the Colombian journalist who tried to enter the 48th annual General Assembly of the United Nations last week. Her pass was a day, maybe even hours, out of date, so the security guard, in his UN policeman's blue uniform, reached for the pass hanging from her neck to confiscate it and a scuffle of sorts broke out. The woman, resorting to a basic human defence, bit the guard on the hand and he had to have a tetanus shot.

As far back as anyone could remember, and there are some ancient living memories in UN headquarters, nothing quite like this had ever happened. People started asking the age-old question, not about the world but about their own building. Who guards the guards? What price internal security in the 'new world disorder'?

Later in the week, Julian Evans, press aide to the British ambassador, Sir David Hannay, was prevented by a member of the UN's 250-strong police unit from following the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, into a meeting. Evans protested that he had all the necessary official passes, but the UN guard continued to refuse him entry and would give no reason for the arbitrary ban. The British mission has lodged an official complaint.

In yet another incident, an irate member of the French delegation to the UN complained that he was constantly being asked to produce his pass when he was well-known to all the guards. The Frenchman considered the guards' action unnecessary harassment, and he was by no means alone in his experience, according to UN officials.

Even regular workers at the UN, who from time to time encounter swineish behaviour from the UN guard contingent, were taken aback. Overzealous sentinels have become a way of life in most American workplaces, and after the recent bomb threats the UN guards are understandably jittery. But last week the security was overpowering. One UN official complained that the guards had 'taken over', issuing new rules without consultations with other departments about where people could and could not go inside the UN compound.

The UN forecourt, normally a symbol of peace with a fountain, lawns, trees and a sculpture of a revolver with its barrel tied in a knot, was turned into a parking lot for armoured limousines ferrying the visiting dignitaries to and fro. Clusters of thick-set men in dark suits, various weapons making bulges in their jackets, hung around the cars, speaking in coded phrases to miniature microphones concealed in their shirt cuffs.

Part of the overaction by the UN guard was attributed by officials to 'turf battles' between rival security guards. The UN police consider the UN their sovereign territory and they objected strongly to the legions of guards arriving with officials from 184 countries to attend the meeting. The Secret Service guarding President Clinton insisted, for example, that it be allowed its own 'security sweep' of Mr Clinton's route.

It seems such confrontations can only get worse. The demands on civilian security forces from government officials and private institutions are increasing at an alarming rate. New private security firms pop up in the most unexpected places. It is not unusual to find the local deli in Manhattan with a uniformed guard on the door. Next it will be the toyshop. So-called 'state of the art' devices for eavesdropping and surveillance leave no movement of man or beast unrecorded. The latest gadget to be introduced by Washington police sweeps the city for sounds of criminal activity and is apparently able to distinguish a gunshot from the backfire of a car. Could it be unfailingly so precise, I wonder? Who will monitor the use of these better mousetraps?

While the delegates to the general assembly were debating how to cope with the growing list of human 'tragedies' (the new diplomatic-speak for unresolvable international 'crises') a New York City commission across town was hearing how uniformed rogues exploit the crime-plagued city, making false arrests and trafficking in drugs and guns. One former cop made sure of his place in the city's criminal history by revealing that he went by the nickname of 'The Engineer' because he regularly 'tuned up' (police-speak for beat up) innocent people on the street just to show who was boss.

The commission will seek to answer whether the culture of corruption is systemic. One witness said New York police learn the 'Dirty Harry' cynicism for which American cops are famous from the day they start at the police academy. There was a 'them and us' credo where 'them' was the public in general, not just criminals. The cynicism is understandable. In an environment where the risks of law enforcement have never been higher, the police are often criticised for either over- or under-reacting.

Mr Clinton wants to put more police officers on the streets, and the welcome trend is to have them 'bond' with the community by putting them back on foot patrol, and even on un-American vehicles such as bicycles. Criminologists warn that there is no relationship between the number of community-bonding police officers and crime rates, and the best predictors are social and economic factors. There is also no substitute, statistically speaking, for outside inquiries to curb police corruption. The record shows that such inquiries do result in purges. They should just happen more frequently than the current 20-year cycles in New York.