Are 'bobbies' enough for modern Britain?

LONDON — Four nights of arson, looting and violence erupted across England's largest cities and left five people dead.

British police didn't fire a single shot.

It's part of a cherished culture of restraint that is now coming under unprecedented pressure, as Prime Minister David Cameron plans major reforms, slashes police budgets and humiliates homegrown talent by calling in American help.

Since the early 19th century, when legislator Robert Peel launched the world's first modern police department in London, law enforcers in the U.K. have kept the peace by winning the respect of the public, not by instilling fear. They became a world-renowned icon of the capital — nicknamed "bobbies" in Peel's honor.

From the stereotype of a plump and cheerful village officer doffing a tall helmet, to the modern-day community beat teams who helped shopkeepers sweep broken glass from ravaged stores after last week's riots, the country's police have prided themselves on their courteous, low-key approach.

Now sharp cuts to officer numbers driven by Britain's austerity measures, sweeping reforms that threaten to inject politics into decision making, the fallout of England's riots and harsh realities of protecting the public from threats like suicide bombers leaves the country's police in crisis.

Capping the agony, Cameron has turned for advice to ex-Los Angeles, New York and Boston Police Chief William Bratton — dubbed "supercop" after his pioneering approach sent crime rates tumbling in those U.S. cities.

"You are at a turning point," said Maurice Punch, the author of several books on British policing. "What happened last week has just accelerated that, there is now a necessity to have a major review, to take a step back and for the public to ask what kind of policing they want."

Officers and analysts acknowledge the debate is urgent, with London's 2012 Olympic Games looming. But, with relations between Britain's public and its police under strain, there remain deep divisions and uncertainty about whether Britain's cops are too hard or too soft.

Of Britain's 144,000 police officers only 7,000 are authorized to carry guns and almost never use them — firing on just six occasions between April 2009 and March 2010, according to latest available figures.