A number of British police forces are considering arming their officers. The move comes in the wake of the UK suffering five high profile terror attack in 2017. Three regional police forces are reported to feel that the large areas they police mean that the current system of only specially trained firearms officers being armed limits their ability to respond to terrorism and serious crimes involving firearms.
Andrew Parker, the Director-General of the Britain’s Security Service – MI5, said earlier this year that Britain is facing “more terrorist activity… more quickly”, in a trend that has seen domestic terrorist attacks increase across Europe and around the world.
While British intelligence agencies, like MI5, are doing excellent work, reportedly foiling as many as 20 attacks in the last four years, there is growing concern that terror attacks outside of major cities may take place. MI5 place the current threat level from international terrorism in the UK as ‘severe’. Britain’s major cities have established response teams and more resources to deal with potential attacks and conduct counter-terrorism operations to prevent them. Some more rural, and lesser funded, constabularies, however, are concerned that they do not have the manpower or capability to rapidly respond to threats due to the relatively large areas they police. This follows a recent national review of expected response times and mirrors recent comments by Che Donald, the Police Federation’s firearms officer representative, who warned in 2016, that “currently there are not enough firearms officers who could deal with an incident in quite a lot of areas of Britain.”
Currently armed British police are separated into two types: Authorised Firearms Officers (AFO) – officers who have received weapons training and are authorised to carry firearms and Specialist Firearms Officer (SFO) – officers with higher level training, more akin to US police SWAT teams. It is unclear if the move to increase the number of armed officers will see more officers become AFOs or if a new qualification will be introduced. It has been reported that regular uniformed officers would go through 2 weeks firearms training, probably with a pistol.
Police forces in more rural areas and those in regions with smaller cities fear that domestic or international terror cells may identify them as easier, more vulnerable targets. During their July 2017 meeting the National Police Chiefs’ Council discussed a paper called ‘Arming the Police’. This paper laid out several options which are reported to be under consideration. These included allowing some uniformed officers to openly carry side arms while another would follow the Norwegian Police Service’s model with firearms being stored securely in patrol cars with access needing to be authorised by senior officers.
While many European countries routinely arm their officers, including France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, others such as the Republic of Ireland do not. Back in 2006, it was reported that a poll of British police officers found that 82% of Britain’s Police Federation members did not want to be routinely armed on duty. Attitudes appear to be shifting, however, and in September of this year a similar Police Federation poll found that 34% of officers asked felt they should carry a weapon. During the same survey 55% of officers said they would carry a firearm if ordered. There is precedent for armed officers in the UK as the Police Service of Northern Ireland, are routinely armed on patrol.
Major terrorist incidents in London have seen officers from other constabularies drafted in on a number of occasions and May 2017, saw Operation Temperer enacted with British troops deploying to free up armed officers on guard duty in some public spaces. The need for more specialist firearms officers was recognised in 2016, when police forces in England and Wales launched a 5 year National Armed Uplift Programme. This £143 million initiative seeks to recruit and train an additional 1,500 armed officers by 2021. The Police Federation has warned that it could take considerably longer.
At the moment British firearms officers are equipped with a variety of Glock and SIG Sauer pistols with semi-automatic carbines including the Heckler & Koch MP5SF and G36SF and the SIG MCX are also issued. The Metropolitan Police’s elite Counter Terrorist Specialist Firearms Officers (CTSFO) unit, formed before the 2012 London Olympics, is a prime example of how major cities, which experience greater threat levels, are better equipped to respond to terror incidents than more rural areas.
While the three police forces discussing generally arming officers have not been identified, another major force, the British Transport police (BTP), have publicly confirmed that they are exploring the option. BTP deputy cheif constable Adrian Hanstock said that while “we cherish the model of an unarmed police force… we are actively considering and looking at the options.” Hanstock continued to say that “no decisions have been made.” While the debate is now underway regarding arming officers regularly the change on such a divisive issue is unlikely to happen immediately.