Ever since the formation of the Metropolitan police 183 years ago it has been an accepted fact that the police forces of Britain do not carry guns. At its conception the general public’s fear was that the new force, dressed in blue to distinguish them from the distrusted infantry, would be an aggressive threat to civil liberty. This is a fear that stays with us to this day; inextricably linked to the belief that the bedrock of British policing is that they serve to protect society, not control it. It is a tradition that takes tourists and visitors by surprise that aside from the big guns in place in airports, the average British bobby is armed with just a wooden stick and pepper spray; a total contrast from gun-happy America and the majority of nations across the world.
In recent years, however, the police here have slowly gained more protection. Taser guns can now be used in exceptional circumstances by trained officers and we have a number of armed response units, but since the tragic deaths of PC’s Nicola Adams and Fiona Bone the argument calling for all officers to be routinely armed has gained strength. Those taking the pro-gun stance note the list of officers killed in the line of duty, from PC Sharon Beshenivsky to PC David Rathband to name just two of the most well-known tragedies. In total 256 officers have been shot in the UK since 1945, 201 of those took place in Northern Ireland.
Without doubt, the killing of someone whose sole duty is to the protection of citizens is a travesty, yet the public shock and anger felt afterwards works to show just how rare an occurrence the killing of a police officer is. As Nick Clegg said, we shouldn’t make any “knee-jerk” reactions to serious events such as the Manchester shootings, particularly when the majority of police officers themselves are against the universal rollout of firearms.
A survey in 2006 found that 82% of Police Federation Members did not want officers to be routinely armed. The weight of responsibility held by armed officers would undoubtedly be great, especially when faced with making split-second decisions in the heat of the moment. Mistakes can be made, as we witnessed with the killing of Jean Charles De Menezes, wrongly identified as a terrorist by a firearms officer. The killing of an innocent by those in place to protect them is a major mistake to make and is something that the public rarely stand for. The killing of Mark Duggan in 2011 sparked off the riots in cities across England in the August of that year with the recent tasering of a blind man whose white stick was ridiculously mistaken for a samurai sword demonstrating that some officers can hardly be trusted with a taser gun let alone one that shoots bullets.
The arming of police officers, and the subsequent mistakes and confrontations, would only work to isolate the police from the communities they serve. Rather than the friendly ‘Mr Plod’ type character, approachable and accessible, we would instead see the rise of a more aggressive force, would you feel 100% comfortable walking up to an officer with a great whopping gun strapped to their side? I know I wouldn’t. The police depend heavily on cooperation within the community to tackle some of the biggest issues such as gangs, drug dealing and anti-social behaviour. By distancing themselves from them, as has been the case of armed officers in Northern Ireland, they could lose the trust of the people, undermining the principle of consent which for a long time has dictated how the police interact with citizens.
A time where British police officers routinely carry guns is most definitely not coming any time soon, for the reasons already mentioned as well as the pragmatic issues of sheer expense at a time of austerity. I am sure the debate will rage on, though hopefully will not be helped on by any more deaths on either side.
BY: Louise Hill