The cold-blooded murder of police officers Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone has shocked Britain. In response some are suggesting we routinely arm our police with the possibility that Elected Police Commissioners may run on such a ticket.
There could be few worse legacies for this horrific crime if this were to happen.
Along with Norway and New Zealand, the United Kingdom is one of the few nations that does not arm its regular police officers. Combined with the fact we have the strongest gun control laws in the world, British society is heavily sensitised to the sight of firearms. As a people, we tend to double take when we see an armed officer, a sight usually only seen at sensitive occasions or locations and as an understandable exception in Northern Ireland.
One of the foundations of our police force was Peel’s principle that “the police are the public and the public are the police”. As a civilian organisation the British police mirror the fact that as a society we are overwhelmingly unarmed.
The United States is the perfect example of a society that is desensitised to guns – 2009 figures show you were 40 times more likely to be shot in America than in England or Wales. We rightly see the murder of two officers as one of the worst crimes against our force in history, but in comparison 166 American cops died from gunfire last year alone.
Mark Duggan’s death sparked last year’s riots and the tragic shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes sparked a huge investigation. Yet for such emblematic incidents and mistakes the British police have killed 54 people since 1990 – while in just one year 414 ‘justified homicides’ were recorded in the US.
There will be moments when the police have to use or threaten lethal force but for these incidences we use Authorised Firearms Officers. These are spread throughout the country’s forces and are highly trained. We cannot expect everyday bobbies to deal with siege scenarios just as there can be few benefits to them carrying arms that may exacerbate lesser situations or undermine community engagement.
To roll out training and weapons to all constabularies would be unfeasible, particularly when the police face such heavy cuts. The PSNI model cannot be replicated as it works in a unique situation of high threat. Arming en masse would also flood our country with more guns that could well end up missing or stolen.
Critically, there are no voices from the Police Federation asking for routine arming. Despite accepting their lives have been at risk, in a 2006 poll, 82% of them rejected the need to carry guns on duty, while the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Police Superintendents’ Association described an unarmed service as “central to the British model”.
The police work best when they represent us as a society. We trust them more when their ethnic and gender make-up mirrors the communities they serve. Likewise were they armed, a British suspicion of guns would create a huge barrier between the force and a public that dislikes weapons.
Arming our police officers would be unprecedented and a singularly un-British step backwards. We may be a lone voice, but our gun control in the police and wider population is something to be proud of. It is something that makes the tragic deaths of Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone an aberration not the norm.