My first blog post last week was marred somewhat by the tragic events in Cumbria the same day. Since those events there has been an inevitable clamour by the media to analyse the events and try to bring some sense and understanding to something that is fundamentally difficult to accept.
An inevitable side effect of the media interest is the questions of whether the police could have done more to stop Bird on his mysterious path of destruction. I am not a specially trained firearms officer or commander, nor am I conversant with the specific operational capabilities of Cumbria police; the analysis of what they did, or did not do, is best left to those that are suitably trained. Instead I will use this blog to explore another question that has been raised in recent days:
Should the UK police be routinely armed?
I joined the police in 2001, since then I have been involved in a number of incidents, many violent, one of them extremely so; but on only a handful of occasions have I felt that my equipment as an unarmed officer was inadequate.
Every officer that leaves the police station in Sussex wears a protective vest, carries an extendable baton and a can of what is known as PAVA (Or pepper spray if you would rather). These items are more than adequate in dealing with your average drunk getting aggressive outside a nightclub or even stopping someone waving a broken bottle around and on one bizarre occasion warding off a one legged man trying to attack me with his crutch! However they are less effective when dealing with edged weapons and guns, you see to use spray or batons you have to get quite close, too close.
So what do we do when our equipment is inadequate? Certainly in my force the incident is handled effectively and usually very quickly in a professional and proper way. Trained firearms officers are deployed whilst unarmed officers contain any threat and attempt to minimise any danger to the other people involved in the incident. Make no mistake, this is not an especially swift solution but it does allow formal decision making and resource shuffling to take place. It enables senior officers to be consulted, tactical advice to be obtained and plans to be refined and improved. Usually unarmed officers are prevented from placing themselves in any unnecessary danger, the exceptions being an immediate risk to life and things of that nature.
It is with this as a background that I raise my first concern around routine arming, give all police officer guns and we shorten this process, shorten it too much and the essential decision making gets compressed and the scope for poor decision making increases. We place the burden on individual officers to make snap decisions of a truly momentous nature, it would offer them little in the way of guidance and tactical parameters within which to operate. In short the potential for mistakes is massively increased; and the problem with guns is that if you make a mistake with a gun it kills someone, and killing someone is never good.
My second concern around the arming of police is twofold. Firstly there is simply no appetite for it amongst the workforce, the police federation surveyed many of us in 2006 and an overwhelming majority of 82 per cent stated that they do not want all officers to be routinely armed on duty; astonishingly this came at the same time that approximately 23,000 officers across England and Wales stating that they faced extreme levels of violence from members of the public at some point over a two year period. (Source: Police Federation survey 2006). That is just the rank and file, as a duty inspector I have a very eclectic mixture of staff under my command, such a mixture of staff makes for great teams, however to put it simply some of them it would not be appropriate to arm. Don’t get me wrong they are good, even great officers, just not firearms officers.
Secondly and most importantly I just do not think there is public appetite for it. We police in this country by consent and every item that I place on my belt or adorn on my body is something that sets me apart from the public. We should be working on reducing this gap not increasing it with a large lump of metal on our hips. We forget too quickly that the only things that set us apart from the general public are the powers that the public allow us to exert. Over the years we have distanced ourselves from the communities we serve, we strive to re-engage and I could cite many, many, excellent examples of just that; but we still hide within our vests safe in the knowledge that I only have to reach to my belt in my moment of need. Arming us would, I fear, make us less approachable and more distant to the detriment of our relationship with our communities.
So, should we routinely arm the police? In a word – No.
Please let me know what you think.