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Three forces believe that the large areas they cover mean current system of elite firearms officers would be too slow in responding to serious gun crime
Forces are considering plans to give guns to some uniformed bobbies on the beat in order to respond more quickly to a crisis situation, such as a terrorist attack.
The forces concerned are predominantly rural, and senior officers believe that their geography could mean that the current system of specialist firearms officers could lead to delays in getting them to the scene.
One option under consideration is for some officers to openly wear guns on their belt; another is for the guns to be stored securely in patrol cars. Any change would be in addition to having elite officers with guns in armed response vehicles.
The three forces have not been identified, but one of them is believed to be Devon and Cornwall police, whose chief constable Shaun Sawyer told the Guardian: “We have a terrorism threat, and then an increasing threat from serious and organised crime – gangs are coming into the south west from London and the north west – and [there are] copycat risks from people with mental health issues.”
British Transport police (BTP), which protects train stations and the rail network, is a fourth force that is considering arming its officers. Adrian Hanstock, the deputy chief constable, said: “We are actively considering and looking at the options – no decisions have been made – to see how we best protect the public from an obvious and real threat.”
Hanstock said the terrorist attacks Britain suffered this year meant that fresh thinking was needed on the issue of armed police.
In March, an armed protection officer who happened to be in the Palace of Westminster in London shot dead Khalid Masood after he had stabbed an unarmed policeman.
“We cherish the model of an unarmed police force,” Hanstock said. “[But] when you consider how the attack at Westminster was halted by an armed officer who was already there, you can speculate that if there had been armed officers at London Bridge, or other incidents, would the attack have been halted sooner?”
During the London Bridge attack in June, BTP officer Wayne Marques came face to face with the terrorists armed only with a baton, and was stabbed in the head.
BTP covers transport hubs, which can be crowded and are potential terrorist targets.
Police chiefs will meet in January 2018 to discuss the issues. A paper called “Arming the police” was debated by police chiefs at a meeting in October, whichled to a small number of forces exploring options, up to and including the “routine arming” of some officers.
The new plans follow a review of every police forces’ ability to respond to gun violence and how long armed officers would take to get to incidents. That exercise found that some forces would take longer than others. More rural forces are deemed to face a lower threat of terrorist attack than urban counterparts.
Devon and Cornwall has 3,000 police officers who cover an area of 4,000 sq miles. The population of 1.7 million people swells in the summer months with 11 million visitors.
The force’s armed response vehicles usually carry two officers. The large area the force covers means getting enough armed officers to the scene of a shooting could give attackers a long time before they were challenged by enough officers with firearms.
Sawyer said: “The current configuration [of armed officers] is not right. The response times are too long. The disparity is too great compared to other forces. We are actively working with the national counter-terrorism infrastructure to finalise our understanding of the threat and response times.
Sawyer added: “We have a high rate of mental health issues and more firearms in our counties of Devon and Cornwall than others.”
Currently, armed policing is a specialist role. Volunteers receive six weeks of training and regularly have to be withdrawn from duty for refresher training. They are an expensive option at a time of unprecedented strain on budgets.
Under the plans being considered, regular officers would get two weeks of firearms training, most likely with a Glock handgun, similar to their counterparts in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who are routinely armed when on patrol.
Two of Britain’s worst mass shootings happened in rural areas. Derrick Bird killed 12 people in Cumbria in 2010, while Michael Ryan killed 16 in Hungerford, Berkshire, in 1987.
Get on with it. Englanders should have done this a long time ago. There is a reason why God put you folks on that island.