By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
I found recently what may either be an unfortunate coincidence, a bad joke, or the invisible hand of Boer War veteran Harry “Breaker” Morant in police policymaking. In jest, could it be that the Boston Police Department took a line right out of the Australian film Breaker Morant when it codified the department’s Use of Deadly Force policy?
The irony might be for Australian war film buffs that the Boston Police, even when justified, actually do shoot people under “Rule 303”.
The film, and its well-known line, stem from the Second Anglo-Boer War out of present day South Africa at the onset of the 20th Century. Australian citizen Harry “Breaker” Harbord Morant fought among the Bushveldt Carbineers for the British cause against a Boer insurgency seeking their ouster. During his service he stood trial, along with Peter Handcock and George Witton, for war crimes; accused of murdering a missionary and several prisoners of war. A principle argument made by the defense was that the men were following established orders made by senior officers. This was denied at every level from above during trial. In the end both Morant and Handcock faced execution by firing squad, while Witton’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Lord Kitchener–though he was released much earlier. The trial generated much controversy, especially in Australia and elsewhere where some camps believe due process was not afforded the accused who were mere “scapegoats” to the political ambitions of the British Government and Military and for others the three represented an arm of an empire that unquestionably at the time engaged in brutality against the resident population.
The film followed much of a best-selling novel penned by George Witton titled “Scapegoats of the Empire”. According to Witton, during trial, Morant took exception to questioning by military bureaucrats of his actions during war where he was forced through realities to adopt strong measures to accomplish military goals. From the book:
For the defence, Lieutenant Morant stated that he had been under Captain Hunt, clearing the northern district of Boers. It was regular guerilla warfare; Captain Hunt acted on orders he got in Pretoria, which were in effect to clear Spelonken and take no prisoners. Captain Hunt had told him that Colonel Hamilton, military secretary, had given him the orders at Lord Kitchener’s private house where he had gone with a pair of polo ponies, just prior to his departure for Spelonken. All the detachment knew of the order given by Captain Hunt not to bring in prisoners. After the death of Captain Hunt he took command and went out with reinforcements, and when he learned the circumstances of his death, and how he had been maltreated, he told the others that he had previously disregarded the orders of Captain Hunt, but in future he would carry them out, as he considered they were lawful. The orders had only been transmitted verbally by Captain Hunt, and he had quoted the actions of Kitchener’s Horse and Strathcona’s Horse as precedents; he never questioned the validity of the orders, he was certain they were correct. He had shot no prisoner before Visser, and the facts in Visser’s case had been reported to Captain Taylor, also to Major Lenehan and Colonel Hall.
“Was your court at the trial of Visser constituted like this?” asked the President, “and did you observe paragraph —— of —— section of the King’s Regulations?” “Was it like this!” fiercely answered Morant. “No; it was not quite so handsome. As to rules and sections, we had no Red Book, and knew nothing about them. We were out fighting the Boers, not sitting comfortably behind barb-wire entanglements; we got them and shot them under Rule 303.”
Rule 303 refers to the Lee Enfield .303 caliber rifle used during the war. Enforcement of the “rule” was prominently shown in the film.
Yet it seems that Rule 303 has resurrected itself, if in name only and certainly not in actual practice, with the present day Boston Police Department policy manual.
Thankfully, the modern version of Rule 303 involves a deeper appreciation for life and evokes a will to de-escalate a crisis situation to avoid use of deadly force if at all possible, and not the law of the jungle approach enforced by military arms. To their obvious credit Boston’s policy can serve as a model for other departments in crafting their own policy. Yet it is inescapable that the codification of the number does lend itself to a bit of joking for those who remember the film and book. Perhaps the next time they revise the nomenclature of the policy, they instead might choose a different numbering system than obsolete rifle calibers of former Commonwealth Armies. Maybe Rule 308? Oh, wait. That’s already used for Rule 308: Crime Stoppers Program.
By Darren Smith
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