Following the murder of PCs Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone in a Manchester suburb on Tuesday, the question of whether or not British police officers should carry firearms has once again become a matter of debate. Understandably, the most vocal proponents of an armed police force are the families of officers who have been killed or injured whilst on duty. The logic behind such feeling is straightforward; if officers carried more powerful weapons then they would be better equipped to protect themselves from criminals. There are however obvious problems with such reasoning. It presupposes that the average criminal will be unable or unwilling to respond in kind by seeking greater quantities of increasingly deadly weapons. This argument has been advanced by Norman Brennan, a campaigner for an armed police force and a former police officer of 31 years, who was almost killed by a knife attack when on duty in 1985. His assertion that, “The romantic image of the unarmed British Bobby must sadly be consigned to the history books,” is based upon the view that, in modern society, criminals have increasingly embraced the technological advances that the police have decided to shun. Whilst there are few who would argue against Brennan’s belief that the police “have the right to be afforded any and every protection,” there are even fewer who would consider a gun to be purely a protective device. Unlike a stab-proof vest or even the CS spray now issued to British police officers, firearms are clearly, in addition to whatever else they might be, offensive weapons. Between 2000 and 2010, in the United States 511 officers were killed in the line of duty. 51 of these were slain when their own guns were turned against them. Furthermore, a greater number of guns in circulation, even amongst the authorities, almost inevitably leads to an increase in the number of firearms which are in circulation illegally. New Zealand Police Chief Peter Marshall states that the “International experience shows that making firearms more accessible raises certain risks that are very difficult to control.”
Even if, as Norman Brennan wishes, every police officer were given the right to take such measures to protect themselves, the evidence suggests that police officers would overwhelmingly decide not to exercise this right. In a 2006 Police Federation survey, 82% of officers polled said that they did not wish to be armed. More than 7% of those polled said that, should they be compelled to carry firearms they would resign from the police service altogether. Even in the wake of this most recent tragedy, Sir Peter Fahey of Greater Manchester Police has issued a statement describing how “passionately” he and his colleagues wish to remain unarmed.
When Robert Peel set out the principles which any ethical police force would need to embody, there were two key ideas which dominated his thinking. The first of which was that, primarily, it would be the role of the police to safeguard public order rather than impose it. Peel further noted that, although it may at times be necessary to impose order by force, any use of force and imposition must be paid for in public consent. In other words; “the degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.”
With these principles in mind, the resistance from within the police force can, at least in part, be attributed to an awareness of the role of the “unarmed British Bobby.” This image of the traditional Bobby fits with one of the core principles of Robert Peel’s vision for the force he wished to establish; the police are the public and the public are the police. Law and order is to be maintained by the police in conjunction with the general populace, rather than in spite of them. By arming the police you immediately increase their distance from the public and a climate of mistrust is allowed to grow and fester. It is crucial that police must remain unarmed if they wish to be a part of the communities that they protect. An unarmed service which keeps the peace on a largely consensual basis has a duty to the public rather than to the state. Former Met Deputy Commissioner Brian Paddick has spoken out about the negative impact which an armed police force would have on community relations: “In terms of the police being approachable, in terms of the public being the eyes and ears of the police, officers don’t want to lose that.” In arming the police a shift in the perception of their relationship with the public is inevitable. Rather than being kept safe by the police, there is an added sense that the police are there to keep the public in line.
Whilst many will claim that law abiding citizens have nothing to fear, Dr Peter Squires, an expert on gun crime from Brighton University, made a study of the armed Swedish police service and compared it to their Norwegian counterparts. The presence of an armed police force was seen to immediately mark a clear difference in the relationship between police force and public: “just the fact of arming the police means that they approach incidents more aggressively, there are more armed incidents, more people get shot.”
With such a marked increase in the number of armed police officers, it is inevitable that the number of controversial shootings involving the police would rise also. The shootings of Jean Charles de Menezes and Mark Duggan aroused public anger, suspicion and fear, all of which served to weaken not only the police’s relationship with the community but particularly in the case of Mark Duggan, their ability to maintain order. An inevitable increase in the number of controversial incidents which stain the reputation of the police is surely enough in itself to offset the potential benefits of an armed police force.
The debate as to whether or not the British police force ought to be armed was, ultimately, a short lived one. The police don’t want to be armed and the home secretary doesn’t want to arm them. British policing has, for the past 183 years, maintained a tradition of unarmed service. The police understand that it is imperative, both for their own sake and for the sake of those whom they protect, that this most recent tragedy is not allowed to undermine the very principles which the police were intended to embody.