Terrorists are known to select targets which give them maximum publicity and this week’s attack at Westminster in London, at a globally-known landmark, with four victims killed from a total of three countries and injured people from 11 different countries, certainly created global news.
Many members of the public now believe that arming the police would be a good thing, although it needs to be said that many were against the presence of armed officers at a 2016 Christmas Fair in Newcastle (see the above photograph) because it was so out-of-keeping with the nature of the event. Yet it also needs to be said that such events clearly do present themselves as potential targets from a terrorist point of view. So there is a distinct clash of public opinions on this issue.
I joined the police back in the early 1970s and from the outset was of the stated opinion that if the British police, as a whole, were permanently armed during the period of my service, I would resign on principle.
Are the British police perfect? No, not by some distance, but they still rightly are the envy of many developed nations and iconic in their typical absence of firearms, other than on targeted protection duties.
As tragic as the death of PC 4157U Keith Palmer was, two days ago, it has to be said that almost certainly he was the only person injured or killed as a result of not every police officer at the Westminster location being armed, and it is possible he might not have been able to save himself even if he’d had a gun, if he was caught unawares. It is unlikely in the extreme that the police would have fired shots at the car when it was among pedestrians and other vehicles on Westminster Bridge where all of the other injuries and deaths occurred, and in any event that did not happen.
Would the permanent arming of all police officers throughout Britain prevent terrorist attacks or the lone-wolf attacks of mentally unstable people? Quite clearly not, otherwise there would have been no attacks in France or Germany or any other countries where all the police are armed.
Aside from terrorism, Britain’s serious crime squads naturally do carry firearms whenever deemed necessary, but that is not what this is about.
One key question is: Would arming all police officers reduce the number of officers who are murdered on duty? This is a very appealing conclusion to draw. However, based on the information given in the source shown in paragraph (b) in the below footnotes, ‘only’ about 134 British police officers have been the victims of deliberately intended deaths in the 117 years since the start of the year 1900 — an average of 1.145 officers per year. (Note that this does not include over 300 police victims of the euphemistically-named ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland or of IRA bombs in England.) This question therefore is whether arming all British police officers would be likely to reduce the remarkably low number of officers who are deliberately killed on what can be classed as normal duties.
Would there be any disadvantages to arming all British police officers? Three that stand out are:
It is argued, with some justification, that criminals committing serious crimes are more likely to carry firearms to aid their escape if they know the police will be armed. This clearly increases the danger for anyone in the vicinity;
As soon as a police officer with a handgun gets into a physical confrontation, there is a danger that the person or people he/she is fighting with will try to take away the firearm and could potentially use it against the officer, a particular risk if drunk, drugged or mentally unstable people are involved. This, in turn, is more likely to cause officers to use their weapon themselves. Again, the dangers increase dramatically. Please view the 15 October 2016 article in the footnotes below, and you will see that in just one year there were an estimated 23,000 assaults against British police officers. I cannot believe for one minute that if guns had been carried at all of these events there would have been no lethal outcomes;
It is, in my opinion, inevitable that at least some crime suspects would end up being shot when a gun-free policing approach would otherwise have brought them in alive. This, of course, isn’t a criticism of the guns, per se, but of the fact that with any very large body of armed officers some will inevitably interpret and apply the relevant rules and laws, shall we say, “a little too freely.” Other countries’ police forces already provide repeated examples of this undesirable situation.
At the opposite extreme to the current state of affairs in Britain, it is a fact that in just 20 days during January 2016, police officers in the USA shot and killed more people than had been shot and killed by the police in Britain in the previous 25 years! I’m not pretending that either country is like the other but with a population ratio of just 5:1 the disparity is so cataclysmic that in Britain we really must ask ourselves whether we wish to risk heading in that direction.
This is an important topic. Please feel free to add your comments at the foot of this page (polite and sensible only, please). Or just a ‘Yes’ for arming all police officers or a ‘No’ for not doing so will suffice!
a) How many British police officers are harmed in the line of duty? “The Home Office estimates there were 23,000 assaults against officers in 2014/15, and (in the then 70 years) since 1945 more than 250 officers [see below] have been fatally shot… [Between 2010 and October 2015], 11 officers of the Metropolitan police lost their lives in the line of duty.” The Guardian. 15 October 2015
b) It looks possible that the above claim that “since 1945 more than 250 officers have been fatally shot” may be misleading because a separate, seemingly well-sourced list shows that a total of ‘just’ 260 officers have been killed as a result of criminals’ actions between 1900 and 2016 (of whom 68 officers were shot and 23 stabbed). Of these 260 deaths, however, ‘only’ about half of them (i.e. 129) appear to have died as a result of deliberate assaults by an offender, as opposed to say deaths that occurred during pursuits. This latter list, however, excludes those officers killed in the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland which may explain the aforementioned apparent disparity in overall numbers.
Here’s a very serious question for you. Given that in Britain a police officer’s oath includes “the protection of life and property” and in America the police role is “to protect and serve” (my italics), and given that throughout the developed world far, far more human lives are lost in road crashes than in murders, why, oh why, are massive police contributions to countless saved lives on the roads not even known about, let alone discussed and praised?
It is, of course, a grim reality that the tragic death of a loved one is exactly that — a heartbreaking tragedy. It would perhaps be simplistic to say the cause of any such loss is not relevant, of course it is, but the over-riding grief comes from the unbearable fact that a family member or dear friend is gone. (Every police officer who has delivered a ‘death message’ to an unsuspecting family has had to do one of the worst tasks on the planet.)
At this point, it becomes important to know a little about how the key aspects of effective crash and casualty prevention operate. For many years, road safety has been based upon a set of ‘E’ words, of which the key ones are:
Education (teaching safety to young people in particular, accurately)
Engineering (both better-designed roads and better-made vehicles)
Enforcement (to discourage the use or repetition of dangerous factors)
Emergency (preventing secondary collisions at the crash site, freeing trapped victims and swift removal of the seriously-injured to hospital)
Evaluation (by empirical research; what really works and what is myth?)
The first three items in the above list were the original “Three E’s” and each of these, if done appropriately and comprehensively, is capable of saving many lives, and in most of the developed nations this has happened on a very large scale.
(The current ‘Decade of Action for Road Safety’, 2011-2020, which sadly most people are still unaware of, is based upon the slightly different ‘Pillars’ of the task but that does not affect this article.)
Over the last 30-40 years, the most regular ‘leaders’ in this race to cut the number of road deaths have repeatedly been Sweden and Great Britain. Indeed, since I first joined the police in the early 1970s the number of people killed each year on Britain’s roads alone has fallen by about three-quarters, from around 7,500 to below 2,000, despite the fact that there are now many times more vehicles on the road. What proportion of this huge lifesaving success has been due specifically to police enforcement (or to education, or engineering)? That is impossible to say, primarily because most crashes have multiple causative factors, but research shows that all three disciplines have been crucial in this stunning improvement.
One truly excellent example of the success of two of these factors (education and enforcement) working together can easily be seen in the way that drink driving is now dramatically less-common in Britain and therefore kills far fewer people than it did in the 1960s and 70s when the “Don’t Drink and Drive” message first appeared in television and radio advertisements. Since then, of course, the police have arrested hundreds of thousands of unthinking drivers for risking other people’s lives. The most telling evidence of the overall success comes in the form of public perception and the fact that while decades ago it was seen as fairly harmless to have a few drinks and then drive home, people’s attitude is generally now the opposite… anyone who drinks and drives is a pariah. The education aspect about drink-driving is almost complete but of course this is only one of many causes of fatal road crashes.
That brings me to the three final points of this post:
Firstly, I would suggest that while many people have venomously criticised traffic patrol police officers over the years, those officers are lifesavers — it’s as simple as that. There is no such thing as “pointless speeding tickets,” blah, blah, blah.
Secondly, throughout the last 100 years or so, the number of road deaths in Britain each year has vastly exceeded the number of murders — though less-so nowadays since the huge successes in cutting those road deaths — so if reducing unnecessary deaths is important to society, it is obvious where the greatest efforts need to be focused.
Finally and distressingly, however, we all know that what are now called Roads Policing Units around the UK have been decimated by financial cutbacks. What most people still do not know is that not only has the rate of continued improvement in reducing road deaths now evaporated, specifically due to the financial cutbacks in question, but the trend in the annual numbers of road deaths is actually on the increase once more. And research has now proved the dare-I-say very obvious link to reduced enforcement!
The inspiration for me to write this piece came from the advert for this episode of the BBC ‘Crimewatch’ television programme, about crime on the roads and “the devastating impact of dangerous driving,” a danger that can only be reduced by having an adequate number of highly-trained officers out there patrolling the roads and saving yet more lives by doing so!
Copyright, 16 March 2017, Eddie Wren (alias author ‘Steve Shearwater’)
Well-known commentator Jeremy Paxman, in an article in the Financial Times, accurately wrote: [Metropolitan police officers] “consider themselves fortunate that, in central London, back-up can be with them inside a minute or so. Police officers patrolling county towns on a weekend night are much more exposed.”
My own comment: As was the case for many, many of my colleagues back in the 1970s and 80s, I recall occasions when I had to wait 15 minutes or more for the ‘urgent assistance’ I had requested for the violent situations I was dealing with, alone. It was accepted as being part of our job, and in rural areas I suspect that the situation is now even worse, given the reduction in officer numbers and the closure of many small-town police stations over recent years. At times, rural policing can be very far from the idyllic job it might appear to be. Steve Shearwater
The Facebook page ‘Cumbria Police Novels’ (which is the ‘tag line’ at the top of each page and blog post on this website) now has both the paperback and Kindle versions of ‘My Cup Runneth Over’ on sale through Amazon UK. British readers click here.
A journalist writing a Cumbrian article about hate crimes used an unfortunate choice of words when he said: “The UK’s decision to leave the EU coincided with a spike in hate crimes across Cumbria…”
It was not a coincidence, it was the straightforward fact that moronic, malevolent racists used the referendum result as a facile and wicked excuse to hurt other people. End of story.
Another part of the equation undoubtedly involves the fact that in the past few years the UK Government has caused vicious financial cuts on all police forces, as a result of which the number of officers everywhere has been seriously reduced – more racist trouble, less officers to help reduce or prevent it. This already is a sign of things to come, such as the current pervasive increase in road deaths in Britain when, for over thirty years we have been one of the equal two top countries for road safety in the world, largely as a result of excellent standards of enforcement (one of the vital “3E’s” of road-death reduction). Again, far fewer officers means bigger problems – in this case more deaths.
Finally, may I add that if the do-gooders or perhaps the social workers of this world want to say that it’s not good for the police to think of certain people as being – say – “moronic, malevolent racists,” it is important that they remember that expertise in this field is multi-disciplinary and requires that police knowledge and experience be given just as much weight as their own beliefs or skills.
This month (February 2017) Cumbria magazine has published a much-shortened chapter from my novel – ‘My Cup Runneth Over’ – and next month they are kindly adding a review of the whole book.
Clearly, a book about being a young police officer stationed at a town in the stunningly beautiful Lake District National Park in the north-west corner of England has interest for British folks who know the Lake District but it has also been written to appeal to people from other countries, too – particularly those of you from the USA, where I have lived for over ten years.
Is this another example of the so-called, cultural ‘British Invasion’ in the USA? I’d like to think so but as this is my first novel it would be silly of me to actually believe that. I have, however, had the delightful good fortune to have had the style and humour of my novel repeatedly compared to the wonderful books by the famous veterinary surgeon James Herriot.
Remembering as well that even today the vast majority of British police officers do not carry lethal weapons, the novel offers a great insight into how such unarmed officers can operate in general safety and it also gives a great insight into rural life in England’s second-largest and most scenic county – home of the famed ‘Lakes Poets’ such as William Wordsworth.
Dialect and police jargon are included in the writing but they are carefully explained in glossaries on the website – see the link below – so nobody need struggle to understand these fascinating cultural aspects. (The Lakeland dialect, for example, is strongly based upon Old Norse, from Viking times.)
And then, of course, there’s the crime aspect! Naturally, none of the crimes or criminals in the book are actual events or real people, but each has been developed from my own lengthy experience in the police and the events are therefore very true-to-life and accurate in terms of police procedure back in the 1970s where the story is set.