At tomorrow’s National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) meeting, police leaders will be discussing the prospect of offering a gun to every frontline officer in England and Wales.
Recent horrific events have propelled this debate into the fore and caused senior policing leaders to examine the way in which officers are equipped to protect themselves and the public. Chief Constables will ultimately make what is an operational policing decision around firearms, but I feel it is important for others across the policing landscape to share perspectives.
I stand by my statement that I would resign as a PCC if we moved towards arming all officers. Why do I feel so strongly?
I am proud to have worked in, and with, 1 of only 5 routinely unarmed police services in the world. It is a testament to the professionalism and integrity of our police officers and staff that the vast majority of our communities consent to policing.
At present, a police officer might stop you and ask questions about what you are doing. You are within your legal rights to refuse to stop or answer. If confronted by an armed officer, people may not feel confident about exercising their rights. The policing by consent model would break down.
Seeing armed officers on the streets would be intimidating and would make the police service reminiscent of a paramilitary force. It would inhibit officers’ ability to communicate effectively with the communities they serve. The fallout of this is that policing would risk losing local relationships which have taken so much work to forge, the trust of our most vulnerable residents and with it the sharing of information and ability to identify problems.
The other ramifications are also bleak. At the moment, other than a split second decision taken during terrorist incidents such as Borough Market or Westminster, a decision to deploy firearms officers, let alone fire a weapon, is scrutinised in a measured way by experienced tactical advisors and senior officers.
Allowing officers to make such decisions on the street, which arming all officers would do, undermines this robust oversight and could have fatal costs. However infrequent this might be, even one incident could be devastating to public confidence in policing. In other countries where police are routinely armed, criminals have begun to carry weapons in response, and policing in the UK would have to be prepared for that.
We must also consider whether frontline officers would support this move. In a poll carried out in January 2017, only one in four Met Police officers (26%) said that they believe all officers should be routinely armed. 12% said under no circumstances would they carry a firearm while on duty.
A decision to arm all frontline officers could therefore radically change the demographic of our police service. Firstly, those that don’t want to carry a gun might leave. They would be replaced by people who are prepared to carry a gun, and who likely hold different public service values. Some that would have joined the armed forces might consider a career in policing instead.
Secondly, issues of suspension and discipline would become widespread. There is a high probability of officers being taken off duty while investigations are ongoing following a firearms incident. Over time, this could have a hugely detrimental impact on police resources as a whole.
It must not be overlooked that arming high numbers of officers would affect community engagement with policing. The Royal Ulster Constabulary became the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in 2001 and continued routinely arming officers. By 2004, the Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde requested that senior investigating officers from England and Wales come to the PSNI because officers had “lost their way” in investigating non-terrorism related offences. I was one of the officers invited, but declined the secondment because I would not carry a weapon.
The threat posed by terrorism must be addressed, but arming all frontline officers is not the answer. The cost would be huge and not just financially. Forces nationally are examining uplifts in both firearms and Taser provision, but to universally arm officers is a significant step from this. As a country, we have dealt with complex challenges such as the IRA threat and the Iranian siege without arming and I fail to see why on this occasion we would sacrifice our policing model.
Other than when an imminent threat to life is posed, officers’ first tactic should always be to de-escalate situations using the minimum level of force necessary to adequately protect our communities.