The Guardian - I’ve been a police officer for 20 years. When I joined the service I resolved that if I was ever required to carry a gun, I would leave.I know it would cost millons to arm more officers - but we should start talking about it.
Over the past two decades I’ve changed my mind. I’ve been a firearms commander for seven years now and have led countless armed operations to keep our streets safe, utilising highly trained specialist firearms officers. They are without doubt the most professional group of people it has been my privilege to serve with.
But I’ve long worried they are few and far between. Home Office figures show that out of 126,766 police officers in England and Wales, only 5,639 are authorised to use guns. That is less than 5%.
After Manchester there were more police like me on the streets - but at what cost?
As you read this, some of those officers will be on rest days, on holiday, training; some will be sick. The night shift will be sleeping. Many will be on foot, guarding Downing Street, palaces, embassies and other critical infrastructure across the UK. Others will, rightly so, be providing close protection to VIPs and senior politicians. But that doesn’t leave many to protect the public.
There is no doubting the impressive eight-minute response to the London Bridge attacks but outside our large cities the response time would be significantly longer. For obvious reasons, I’m not going to reveal what the time would be to a market, seaside or rural town in my force, but it would shock you.
There are simply insufficient officers carrying guns to turn out quickly to these places. But that is not the only problem. The first officers at London Bridge arrived within two minutes.
These brave officers tackled the terrorists armed with only batons and chairs. It is amazing that they were not killed. But they were overpowered and the terrorists moved on and continued to stab other people.
This is not an unusual scenario: in 2010 during his rampage through Cumbria, Derrick Bird was quickly confronted by unarmed officers but aimed his gun at them. They were unable to return fire and despite their bravery, Bird got away and killed a further nine people and injured one.
Commissioner Cressida Dick was right to saythat it was not clear whether PC Palmer, murdered in the Westminster attack in March 2017, could have defended himself if armed. When an attacker closes on you quickly, you might not have time to react and, armed or not, you can easily be killed.
But the unarmed officers stood next to PC Palmer could have shot the attacker immediately had they been armed, rather than having to wait for armed officers to arrive. But if more officers should be armed, which officers should it be? Arming every single officer is simply impossible.
We don’t need to arm all detectives, all intelligence officers or all those working in supporting functions.
A lot of UK officers would decline a firearm, and many more would be unsuitable or couldn’t pass the course. I doubt if anyone would agree to forcing officers to carry guns. But we can arm all existing officers who are willing to carry a sidearm and are able to pass the rigorous course.
Standards must remain high but at least this approach would put more armed police on the streets. We have highly trained armed response vehicle officers and even better skilled specialist firearms officers who carry a full range of weaponry.
But for practical reasons, it makes sense to arm the additional officers with a handgun, together with a Taser to ensure there is a less lethal optional available to them.
But there are three obstacles to arming more officers: the will to change, money, and time. In my experience chief officers are against arming more officers on the ground.
Dick has said that “people don’t want to see officers armed to the teeth on every street corner” (which is certainly not what is being suggested here) but has also said that she remains open minded about the issue.
Officers themselves must also be assured that if they use their weapon correctly, they will have the backing of not just the police, but also the Independent PoliceComplaints Commission, media, courts and government.
Arming all willing and suitable officers with a sidearm would take millions of pounds. The main cost is not buying weapons but the thousands of additional instructors required; teaching someone how to shoot, and regularly requalifying them, is very labour intensive. We will also need more specialist ranges and buildings, as the present training infrastructure is simply too small. This is all going to require significant investment of new money.
It would take at least five years to arm all suitable officers. That means it is now time to get this debate into the open, so whatever we decide, we can start the process soon.