Police Cars and Street Crossings

This past weekend, I travelled to London, England, where I spent three days at a Christian retreat/conference talking, studying God’s Word, and exploring the city with seven other international students also studying abroad in the UK/mainland Europe. Our two staff leaders, also from the United States, led us in Bible studies that looked at how we as students are called to engage with our new communities in meaningful ways – how the places we are visiting are not just places to be consumed but places in which we should invest – and also took us to fun restaurants and sights around London. On Sunday afternoon, one of our leaders and I walked around London, visiting the British Museum, the Sherlock Holmes house, and also checking out Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station.

Apart from talking about Marvel comic book and movie theories, Weley and I also marvelled at the streets and winding cityscape of London as we traversed it. I personally was disoriented the entire time, never able to fully get my bearings in this flat, extremely windy (as in, convoluted), and gray city. Thank goodness for Google Maps. Regardless of our geographic confusion, we both agreed that the best way to experience a city is to walk it. At one point, Weley made the comment that you can really tell how a city is by two things: how people cross the street and the police presence.

Weley is from Los Angeles, where there are police on every corner, including very sneaky bike-police who are harder to spot than the obvious patrol car or uniformed cop. LA is also a place where jaywalking (crossing the street without using the crosswalk) is taken very seriously and is almost guaranteed to land you a ticket. He observed the difference in London. In our time walking about, we saw only a very small handful of cops: I saw two heavily-armed cops on duty outside the Horse Guards Parade, and there was a constable of sorts outside the Sherlock Holmes house manning the tickets at the door (we honestly couldn’t tell if he was a real cop or just part of the act).

As for crossing the street, as long as you could make it across before the car got you, it seemed allowed – at least, we were never stopped or chastised for crossing either without the permission of the light or outwith the presence of a crosswalk. We also noticed that when folks crossed the street, it tended to be very casually, confidently – the person had a proper understanding of how much time it would take to get across before the car would reach them, and they had confidence that the car would either slow or stop to allow them crossing. Of course, we did see many times where buses or cabs stopped for no one (even a man in a dark orange jacket who seemed particularly determined to be hit by buses and cabs, waiting for neither and almost running into both). Crossing the street was both a nonchalant waltz and a spontaneous dance, both of which somehow managed to flirt with death (though the former a little less overtly).

What does this say about the city itself? The lack of cops in my mind tells me it’s pretty safe. Interestingly, I have read much urban theory that proclaims the presence, not the absence, of cops indicates safety. Crossing the street without adhering to crossing regulations could be an indication of transgression and disorderliness; especially in the mid to late twentieth century, urbanists would argue these small crimes inevitably escalate to large-scale crimes and thus must be policed with extreme vigilance. This “broken windows” theory has informed United States policy and contributed greatly to, among other things, modern concepts of street policing. However, if the idea of more police and greater following of the rules is supposed to create a safer, freer environment, why is it that Weley and I both agree that we feel much more in control (and thus safer?) and free to experience the urban environment when we know we are allowed to cross wherever we want? Why is it that the lack of cops tell me an area is safe (because they are not needed?) when policies in places like LA tell us more cops creates a safer environment (because they are there to enforce this law and stop those who transgress)?

I smell anarchy.

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