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To be armed or not be armed, that was the question

Friday, 22 September 2017

Today saw PFEW lead with two very important updates: the first being an open letter to the Prime Minster demanding answers around the pay award and the other being the results of our Routine Arming Survey, which is the focus of this blog.

While the figures are out there, there does need to be context added to the results as there is much more behind the headlines than just ‘Cops wanting Guns’.

When we compare the survey to the last one which was done in 2006, the most significant change is around the percentage of officers who wish to be routinely armed - an increase of 10 percentage points, taking the 2006 figure from 24% to 34%. While this figure represents the national view of all federated ranks, the support for routine arming varies significantly from this figure when we break it down by role type or rank.

Another important stat to come from the survey is the willingness of police officers to carry a firearm if necessary: this figure similarly increased by 10 percentage points since 2006 to 55%.

Finally, the personal view from majority of those who took part, is that they do not wish to be routinely armed, equating to two thirds of the responses.

It shouldn’t really come as any surprise that there are increases in the survey results since 2006. In fact I was prepared for the increases to be higher. Police officer numbers have been decimated under this government, while demand has increased, along with the country being subject to numerous acts of terrorism. Officers have been single- crewed in an attempt to spread reduced numbers to meet these increasing demands, often leaving them facing violent incidents on their own, with backup further away than we would like to admit.

The question of routine arming is always going to be an emotive one - for our officers and for the public too. However we need to understand that how and what we police is changing. In the 15 years that I have been serving, we have gone from VHS CCTV recordings to digital; facial recognition was undertaken by officer observation; a less than lethal option to a firearm was a baton round; we didn’t wear body armour; my radio weighed more than a house brick and I never thought that officers would have to deal with a marauding terrorist attack or respond to the aftermath of a bomb at a pop concert.

Just as technology moved ahead quickly, so has the threat, harm and risk to public and the police. In Chief Constable Sarah Thornton’s recent press release, she states that the ‘spate of attacks in the UK and Europe are a shift not a spike in the threat, which will take 20 or 30 years to eliminate.’ Interpret that as you wish. I interpret it as these latest attacks won’t be the last.

We are currently insufficiently financed, equipped and resourced to deal with continued acts of terror. When something like this happens, the streets, towns and cities see more visible policing - not additional policing - just more visible policing. This is achieved by cancelling rest days, officers working 12 hour shifts (sometimes even longer), taking officers from other departments such as CID and placing them in uniform on the streets and even calling in the military, all of which is unsustainable. Let’s not forget that the reason we had military on the streets is because we lost so many authorised firearms officers through this government’s relentless and reckless cuts to policing.

The fact is the way we police has changed significantly and will continue to change. While strength of feeling from officers remains quite strong on the subject of routine arming, over half of our officers would be prepared to carry a firearm if necessary.
Now is the time we should be having a mature conversation about how we continue to police in the face of an 'ever evolving threat'. While we continue to try to increase our numbers of firearms officers to the levels they were in 2010, opportunities exist to provide an additional level of safety and security to the public.

Within the Metropolitan Police, a significant number of the Territorial Support Group (TSG) have been trained in the use of a carbine. This remains locked away within the vehicle or armoury and the officers are only deployed with a weapon if authorised. The Metropolitan Police already has the largest number of firearms officers in a single force; in fact when the Borough Market attack took place, four armed response vehicles were on scene within eight minutes: a fantastic response. I do however question how long it would take to get two armed response vehicles to an attack in Hastings, Grimsby or Cardiff, let alone four. It should also not be forgotten that the first police officer to engage with the attackers in Borough Market was on his own, armed only with a baton.

Is it inconceivable to reconsider the reintroduction of district firearms officers? The possibility of each section or shift having two firearms trained officers with firearms locked in the vehicle? Recognising the ability of the Metropolitan Police to deploy the TSG in addition to firearms officers is a model that could be explored further in other forces.

While I recognise and respect the results from the survey, I also recognise and respect the threat, harm and risk to policing in protecting the public. Now is the time for that conversation, with the results from this survey being used for that discussion.
 

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