Arming the Police


Once again routine arming of the Police is being discussed after the recent terror attack  at London Bridge. Unarmed police officers were confronted by attackers, who had large knives and were wearing `suicide belts`. The officers had only a baton to defend themselves with as they faced life-threatening violence. Inevitably, serious injuries were sustained and despite the brave and courageous efforts, the attackers could move on and continue their murderous assault. There was even an off-duty officer who ran towards the potentially deathly assault with none of his protective equipment available to him and yet he still challenged the attackers. He too suffered serious injuries as he placed himself between the attackers and bravely fought them to defend the public he has sworn to protect.

In the aftermath, we are now debating once again the issue of routine arming of every UK Police officer which would be a fundamental and pivotal change in our policing approach and style. I am not going to regurgitate statistics and figures about how many are currently trained, how that number has declined in recent years or the reasons for them. This is not the format for a political debate although there are clear underlying reasons and at some point, those questions need to be answered and accounted for.

Together with many other former Police officers I have commented previously and given my opinion on TV news channels and radio talk shows. It occurred to me as I started writing this that my view, and those of any retired officers, are largely academic as we will never answer an emergency call again.

I joined in 1979 and the only parallel I believe I can draw with such a fundamental change in policing was the introduction of personal radios. They were effectively brought into more widespread use in the 1960`s and I can remember working with experienced officers who resented this innovation.  It was often referred to as the `bat phone` by this older generation who hankered for the old days when they were largely left alone to walk their beat and phone into the station via police phone boxes at periodic intervals. They felt that fast cars and these radio calls would change their link to the community and remove them from the essential daily interaction with the public.

Policing survived this so-called change in approach although there was inevitably some of the iconic `Dixon` type policing contact with communities lost for ever. One argument against routine arming is that it will negatively impact on community engagement and involvement but at what price do you place public and officer safety? There may come a time when officers carry a gun as readily as I used to pick up my personal radio and they will feel it is equally part of their essential equipment.

The key contributors or decision makers to any such change should be those it directly affects and that means the police officers currently serving and more importantly the public. This is where we need the `silent majority` of the public to speak up and tell us what sort of Police service they want to protect and serve them. There will always be those who are against such a move and quote notable incidents where in their view, Police use of firearms has been wrong. To date, no jury or court trial has agreed with this view and this is after they have examined all available evidence. The detractors use these tragic but exceptionally rare incidents to justify the view that the police should have no guns at all. I have yet to see or hear an alternative tactical option that police officers could use to deal with the type of terror attack seen at Westminster or London Bridge or even Manchester, if that attacker had been noticed as he approached the venue.

I asked for views from former police colleagues and those currently serving as to whether they wanted to be armed. I asked them if they had always held that view, had they now changed their view due to recent events and if there was an incident that they would have wanted or needed a gun. I received several interesting responses and numerous incidents where a gun would most certainly have been used had the officer been armed.

  • The TSG officer who chased a suspect and as the suspect turned to confront him he found himself facing a 9mm handgun. Luckily, he managed to vault a nearby fence and only because an old abandoned fridge was left there and as he reached the top four shots rang out. He hit the ground and four more shots flew towards him before the suspect continued to run off and then hijacked a passing moped. Luckily a passing unmarked car managed to `deflect` the suspect off the moped and he was quickly restrained before he could use the gun again. The same officers’ carrier crew was also subject to a drive by shooting a few months later when a machine pistol was fired at the police vehicle and it was struck by about twelve bullets and one officer was injured. Two incidents when an armed officer would have been more able to deal with the threat yet his view remains – no routine arming yet but significant uplift in numbers of armed officers needed. NO to routine arming.
  • My colleague who chased a vehicle across South London and then had an AK 47 fired at his police vehicle and watched as the bullets tracked up the bonnet of his vehicle and across the windscreen as he drove at 60mph. He wished he had been armed on that day and his view has been reinforced after recent events. YES to routine arming.
  • I can remember being about to do a stop and search near Clapham Junction and as we exited our carrier I saw the suspect reach behind to his waistband. Luckily my partner Wes and myself had just reached him and grabbed an arm each. Wes put his free hand towards the area we saw the man reaching for and then shouted `gun` and we both quickly pushed the suspect to the ground. Wes secured the gun and our colleagues rushed to help restrain the suspect. The gun was loaded and ready to be used and I have no doubt that a step or two slower by either of us and he would have pulled it out and pointed it at us. I am still not in favour of routine arming of the police although that incident happened in 1994 and times are very different now. I fully support a significant increase in armed units and would go as far as to say across the UK at least one vehicle armed per shift per station.  NO to routine arming.

The real challenge here is the officers’ ability and willingness to carry a gun and the amount of training required which will involve a significant investment in staff and funding. There is also the underlying issue of what happens if an officer fires his weapon and the subsequent trial by opinion and also lengthy enquiry conducted by the IPCC. Every officer knows they must justify every use of force and fully understand they will be investigated in the same way that they investigate allegations of offences. It is the manner, conduct and length of these police involved shootings that deters many from wanting to carry a gun in the first place.

I believe there is an inevitability about arming the police in the coming years as they face an increasing threat and unprecedented levels of attacks on our society. I do not believe we are ready or need to move to routine arming of the Police at this point in time, but we most definitely need a significant increase across the UK of armed response vehicles and armed officers routinely patrolling with firearms.  I would at this moment, support a full roll out of taser to all front line operational police officers and that would give them another tactical option as opposed to just using a baton or incapacitant spray.

A very recent Police Federation survey found that the majority of officers who responded would not want to be routinely armed. I wonder if that view is now different as a result of the significant change in the threat operational officers now face. The ultimate decision should be by the Police service and its leaders as it is their officers who will be asked to confront any attacks. There is a pertinent approach which I loved whilst policing and supervising staff, never ask someone to do something you would not be prepared to do yourself. The question for everyone is, would you face a terrorist attacker intent on killing you and/or dying in the process with just an extendable metal baton?

So, what do the majority of the British Public want? If you want more Police and more armed Police available to protect you then speak up and tell your elected representatives. They are the ones who allegedly represent your views as security and policing has become the one major issue in the general election. Let`s hope your local MP or government minister doesn’t accuse you of scaremongering or crying wolf and actually listens to the valid and important concerns you have. The Police service tried to inform them so maybe now is the time for the people to speak up and be heard, it`s called democracy.