If an armed terrorist goes on a rampage, British police should be ready – and armed
by Michael Fabricant
former Conservative Vice Chairman, Campaigning
With MI5 telling us that the threat level still remains at ‘Severe’ – second only to the top state of alert – I told the Home Secretary on Monday that many armed police officers believe that their rules of engagement are ?not fit for purpose? and hamper their work protecting the public.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd gave a robust response: “I recognise that this is sometimes a difficult issue. We have been reviewing the support we provide to our firearms officers so that they can carry out their crucial duties without fear, while ensuring there is necessary scrutiny. I know you have specific concerns about automatic suspension and firing first. I can confirm that only in exceptional circumstances would someone be automatically suspended for using their gun. There is no rule prohibiting officers from shooting first. Their decision is and must be based on an assessment of threat to life, including their own.” She added “The number of armed police will increase by more than 1,000. Additional round-the-clock specialist teams will be created outside London and 41 additional police armed response vehicles will be on the streets.”
But is it time for a more fundamental change in the face of the terrorist threat?
In the UK we have a long-established consensus regarding the desire for unarmed policing. Since the 19th century, the majority of British police officers have gone about their duties without carrying firearms. So far, this practice has largely been successful.
However, I believe the time has now come when a fresh approach is needed if future lives are to be saved.
In the light of mass shootings in Paris and the recent news that police have thwarted 13 terror attacks in the UK in the past four years alone, we need to question whether our tradition of unarmed policing is still a viable option or a potentially fatal luxury.
The simple fact is that terrorism has changed. While in the latter part of the 20th century the biggest threat was from IRA bombs, nowadays we have to contend with a whole new beast: fanatical and suicidal ISIS followers running people over in trucks and gunning them down in the streets.
At present, every police force in the country has a specialist firearms unit. Armed police officers also maintain a visible presence at key sites in the capital such as at major airports and train stations. But as Robert Jenrick MP highlighted at Home Office questions on Monday, terrorists are just as likely to strike other British cities such as Nottingham or Derby as they are London.
The real nightmare scenario, however, is not necessarily an attack on a major city but rather an average town with no armed police presence. If a lone madman can get their hands on a gun, there is the potential for immense loss of life in Britain?s many towns and villages.
With armed response units miles away, a brutal Paris-style attack could see the assailants roam free shooting innocent people at will. The 1986 Hungerford massacre and the 2010 Cumbria shootings are a stark reminder of how deadly these incidents can be. The lack of an immediate response may also result in civilians taking matters into their own hands and further endangering life.
At present, attitudes among police officers appear to be against carrying guns as standard. A recent Metropolitan Police survey found only a quarter believed all officers should be armed, but at the same time just 6% believed there to be an adequate number of armed police. Furthermore, three quarters were in favour of issuing all police officers with Tasers.
There is also a mixed view among the public. While polls generally show opposition to arming all police officers, a 2015 police survey in Scotland found 53% in favour.
The UK is among only a handful of countries where the police are not routinely armed. Ireland, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand are the only other major countries where this is the case.
Although there are just 5 incidents a year in England and Wales on average where officers discharge their weapons, the overall homicide rate is comparable to a number of other European countries where police are routinely armed, such as Spain, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands. Opponents of arming police officers argue that it would spark an arms race amongst criminals and lead to a surge in shootings. If this is indeed the case, why do many countries with routinely armed police have similar if not lower murder rates than the UK?
I would like every police officer on patrol to be issued with a gun or a Taser. More importantly, is the need to fill the gaps in swift armed police coverage across the UK. Amber Rudd has pledged £144 million over five years to enhance our armed policing capability, but it is how this is deployed which is critical.
If an armed terrorist goes on a rampage with a gun in any British town, the police need to be able to respond immediately. In Norway for instance, officers are not armed but have firearms unloaded and securely locked in all patrol cars and all police stations to enable an instant armed response.
While our nation’s threat level remains at ‘Severe’, we need to do the same.