To arm or not to arm…. is that really the question?

11 06 2010

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.


So you are starting a blog…. are you mad??

2 06 2010

I am a policeman, it’s not as exciting as the TV would have you believe – but then you knew that. I also am not privy to a great many secrets, official or otherwise.

Sometime ago I found myself temporarily posted to the divisional headquarters in Eastbourne and whilst there I worked for a chap by the name of Chief Suprintendent Robin Smith. Mr Smith encouraged me to pioneer the use of Twitter as a way of engaging with our locals, that was some months ago and I now find myself starting a blog. All good stuff I hear you say.

Now this is all very interesting, or not as the case may be, but what has it got to do with this blogs title?

Well, let me tell you.

In my first week in the police my intake had a ‘talk’ from some very pleasant chap who claimed to be a Detective Inspector. He also claimed to be from the Professional Standards Department. He gave us a list of things that we must not do and that if we did them it would cost us our jobs. Now you would think it would have been things like don’t take bribes, don’t do drugs, don’t commit crime and stuff like that. In fairness those things were included but he also told us to not send joke emails, not to misuse the internet and latterly not to use social media in the workplace.

Now don’t misunderstand me, it is wrong to send/say/display anything gross or offensive, it is wrong to spend your work day surfing the numerous and quite unusual ‘speciality’ sites out there in the internet and I would never, ever encourage drug misuse. But hang on, whats up with Social Media??

Here lies the story behind the title, whenever I extol the virtues of Social Media to colleagues I am met with disbelief that I would risk my job in this way! I have had a Twitter presence now for a few months, and you know what? I still have a job, the reality is that Sussex Police are supportive of my fledgling attempts to engage with the public online. A number of my colleagues are starting to switch on to the use of Twitter and Facebook; they are realising that we don’t have many secrets and that we don’t need to surround our work with a cloak of secrecy.

I like to think I have played a small part in encouraging this change of view.

We in the police must reflect society. We make great effort to engage with the elderly, the disabled, non-english speakers and many other hard to reach groups but until recently we put little effort into engaging with perhaps one of the easiest to reach (although probably hardest to convince) groups out there.

The use of social media is only one area of modern life that the police need to understand and incorporate into our work; we still however need to convince most of our own workforce that social media is not damaging to careers, but that it can only enhance them. There are a growing number of us going about doing just this in, until recently, a very bloody minded way.

I hope this will be the first of many blogs, I am continually thinking of stories and experiences that will help to remove that cloak of secrecy. I am sure that I will retain the support of the organisation and you never know; maybe even encourage a few more cops to open up and talk with everyone who wants to listen.

Please do leave comments, I would love to hear from you.